I can't brush my teeth!

Toothpaste phobia and toothbrush phobia are relatively common. There are a number of reasons why people find it difficult or impossible to brush their teeth:

“Brushing my teeth reminds me of having to see a dentist someday, and the thought makes me feel so ill that I can’t do it. I also can’t stand to see my teeth, or I get flashbacks of past events which led to my dental phobia.”

“I just can’t motivate myself to brush my teeth!”

“I can’t stand the taste of toothpaste!”

“Brushing my teeth makes me gag so badly that I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

“Every time I brush my teeth, or hear someone else brushing their teeth, goosebumps cover me.”

“I’ve never been great with dental hygiene due to mental health problems, and I think this definitely contributes to my fear of the dentist. Sometimes I will go for weeks without brushing my teeth, especially when I’m stressed or feeling depressed.”

Below you’ll find some tips on how to deal with these problems!

Lack of motivation:

  • Invest in an electric toothbrush, they are a less work than manual brushes.
  • Walk around, watch the TV, or read a book while brushing your teeth.
  • Brush your teeth in the shower (can also be done with electric brushes – for obvious reasons, these are waterproof).
  • Carry a toothbrush around with you and brush your teeth when you remember.
  • Remind yourself of the positive benefits of brushing your teeth.

Hating the taste of toothpaste:

  • It’s not necessary to use toothpaste – you can brush your teeth with water instead. The reason most people use toothpaste is (a) that it tastes fresher than water alone, which most people prefer – but that doesn’t mean you have to like it too, and (b) most toothpastes contain fluoride. To compensate for the lack of fluoride in toothpaste, use a mouthrinse which contains fluoride (e. g. Sensodyne Pronamel Daily Mouthwash). Choose a rinse that doesn’t contain alcohol (ethanol), as this can dry out your mouth. You should use the fluoride rinse after brushing (best before going to bed). Don’t rinse after using it.

Gagging while brushing:

  • A sensitive gag reflex can make brushing very difficult. One method which has worked for some people with a bad gag reflex is using an electric toothbrush with a very small brushhead, such as the Oral-B 3D Excel or Professional series. These toothbrushes also do extremely well in controlled studies, and are well worth the investment.
  • Remember to breathe through your nose, unless you cannot do so due to a cold or medical reasons.
  • Usually, the gag reflex is stronger when brushing back teeth (especially the inside and biting surfaces). Gagging may be less pronounced when you keep your lips closed. Some people find it easiest to start off with brushing the outer surfaces of the lower teeth. Start off with whatever area you find easiest, move slowly, and add other areas on a day-by-day basis until you manage to cover your whole mouth.
  • Some electric toothbrushes have two or more speed settings, and you may find a slower speed easier to begin with.
  • Some people find their gag reflex is worse at certain times of the day, especially in the morning. Choose a time that works best for you.
  • The gag reflex may be due to a medical problem – if you suspect this, seeing your GP would be a good idea.
  • A counsellor trained in CBT or a clinical psychologist can help you develop a desensitisation programme tailored to your needs.
  • Sometimes a single event in the past can cause gagging, and simply discovering the cause has helped some people.
  • If gagging is due to past abuse, enlisting the help of an empathetic counsellor or psychologist can be a great idea.
  • Hypnosis may help. Make sure you choose a qualified hypnotherapist.
  • You can find out more about gagging here: How to deal with a bad gag reflex.

Being scared of brushing your teeth:

  • Switch off the lights while brushing your teeth.
  • Close your eyes, or if you’re wearing glasses or contact lenses, remove them.
  • Some people are worried about doing damage to their teeth or gums. These fears are unfounded, the only potential problem is using too much force or brushing incorrectly. Again, a high-end electric toothbrush (such as Oral-B or Sonicare) ensures that this cannot happen – just follow the instructions in the manual. When choosing a manual toothbrush, get one with soft or extra-soft bristles.
  • Some people can’t bring themselves to brush their teeth because it acts as a reminder of traumatic past events (dental or otherwise), or because it reminds them that they really ought to see a dentist *shudder*. Please consider joining our Dental Phobia Support Forum. The suffering you’re going through every day is far worse than anything you might encounter once you locate a caring and gentle dentist.

Hating the sound of the brush:

  • Some people find the sound of manual brushes harder to cope with, others can’t deal with the sound of electric brushes. Use the type of brush you find easiest.
  • Drowning out the sound can help a lot. Brushing your teeth while having a shower works really well.
  • Or use headphones to listen to loud music while brushing your teeth (be careful though that it’s not TOO loud to avoid hearing loss). Noise-cancelling headphones are ideal, but you can use whatever you have lying around. Some people find that headphones actually amplify the sound of the brush, but it might depend on the type of music you’re listening to (something relatively fast and deep without any breaks in the music tends to work well, but choose music that you enjoy).

Depression and dental hygiene:

This is the advice one of our forum members has provided:

I am a dental hygienist who has experienced depression and is also a dental phobic.

My advice would be to get the depression under control first. Are you seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist? I’d recommend seeing one.

Here are my depression remedies for taking care of teeth when you really really really just can’t:

1. Try brushing your teeth in the shower (if you are able to shower). This is my go to technique and is the only way I’ll brush when I’m depressed.
2. If you cannot do any sort of brushing or flossing, chew gum with xylitol. You will need to chew a lot of this a day to be effective and it needs to have xylitiol, not just be sugar free.
3. Try using mouth wash with fluoride in it, if possible 2 times a day.
4. Use a wet paper towel after eating to clear off the food debris and plaque from your teeth.