The Biggest Red Flags to Watch Out For at the Dentist

Having your teeth poked and prodded with scary-sounding and pointy tools can make even the bravest people squirm in their seats (or in this case, a dentist’s chair). As nerve-racking as dental appointments can be, though, it’s important to schedule a check-up every six months. And perhaps the most important factor that’ll determine whether or not you have a comfortable versus frightening visit is the provider you choose, Marina Gonchar, DMD, a board-certified orthodontist and owner of Skin to Smile in New Jersey, tells SELF.

“So many people are scared of going to the dentist for a variety of reasons, including previous bad experiences, lack of knowledge about what to expect, or even fear of the costs associated with many treatments,” Dr. Gonchar says. These are very valid concerns, of course, but finding a dentist who helps you feel safe and supported can alleviate a lot of those stressors—and most providers should go out of their way to minimize any discomfort or anxiety, she adds.

On the flip side, a dentist who keeps pressuring you into unnecessary procedures or leaves you in the dark about how painful a root canal actually is can be enough to scare you off for good. With that in mind, here are some major red flags to be mindful of before you book your next dentist appointment.

1. They don’t have proper credentials.

A fancy degree on the wall and a crisp white coat can make anyone look legit; but just because a dentist seems impressive doesn’t mean they are. As a general rule, you can look up their license and renewal status online because it’s public information, Chrystle Cu, DDS, a dentist at Young Dental Group in San Mateo, California, and founder of Cocofloss, tells SELF. (You can find these facts for every state here or here).

If you’re not sure what exactly to look for, or if this whole vetting process is seriously intimidating you, Dr. Cu recommends first checking their degree—and specifically making sure you see DDS (doctor of dental surgery) or DMD (doctor of medicine in dentistry) after their name if they’re practicing in the US or Canada. (According to the American Dental Association, both degrees are pretty much the same and involve similar training.) So only having a PhD in oral biology, for instance, doesn’t qualify someone to take a drill to your mouth, regardless of how knowledgeable they are about the field.

2. They don’t discuss your dental history.

Any qualified dentist should be able to immediately spot a really bad cavity or loose filling. But less apparent issues like your predisposition for gum disease, say, or harmful habits like teeth grinding factor into your oral health, too—and these are things they should discuss with you before forming a treatment plan, Dr. Cu says.

First off, failing to consider your health history can be dangerous. Certain materials commonly used in dentistry, like latex, can trigger an allergic reaction in some people, for example, while other folks may respond badly to particular pain meds, such as opioids. And if you have a condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, that might also impact your oral health, as well as your treatment options, Dr. Cu says.

3. They push you to get a non-emergency procedure on the spot.

It’s one thing to need a fractured or infected tooth treated ASAP, especially if you haven’t been to the dentist in a while and your health is at stake. For the most part, though, any complex procedure (such as wisdom tooth extraction or dental implants) will be planned weeks in advance, Dr. Gonchar and Dr. Cu say. Rushing you into a non-emergency treatment at your first appointment may be an attempt to prioritize profits, since surgeries and other invasive measures typically involve higher fees than routine checkups, Dr. Gonchar adds.

4. They keep suggesting cosmetic treatments that you didn’t ask for.

Some of us go to the dentist in pursuit of the sparkliest, straightest, pearliest of whites. Others just want the bare minimum: A professional to tell us whether or not our teeth are healthy so we can move on with our lives.

Regardless of why you’re seeking dental care, any dentist who has your best interests in mind shouldn’t be pushing purely cosmetic treatments if you didn’t ask for them—and especially not before more pressing matters like filling a cavity. I mean, would you want a dermatologist suggesting Botox and fillers when all you asked about was your pesky chin acne?

“If your dentist keeps pressuring you into things like veneers or crowns when you didn’t have any aesthetic concerns in the first place, that may indicate that they’re motivated by financial gain and not necessarily your well-being,” Dr. Gonchar says, especially because cosmetic work often isn’t covered by insurance. Plus these types of comments might make you feel insecure about something you had never worried about before—and someone who makes you feel anything but assured isn’t going to be a good match.

5. They don’t follow proper sterilization guidelines.

Of all the places that should be thoroughly cleaned, a dentist’s office ranks high on the list—you definitely don’t want dirty, bacteria-ridden tools or fingers exploring the interior of your mouth.

Realistically, you’re probably not going to see trash scattered around the waiting room or leftover blood on a chair. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires all dental practices to follow specific sterilization guidelines; for example, disinfectants should be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You may also see barrier tape (usually blue in color) on commonly touched surfaces like door handles or countertops to indicate that these areas need to be disinfected, Dr. Gonchar says.

Now, how the hell are you supposed to know the inner workings of your dentist’s office? For one, you can expect instruments to be packaged in sterilized bags or separate containers, per the CDC. In other words, sickle probes (those pointy metal things used to, yep, probe your mouth for cavities) and syringes shouldn’t just be lying out on the counter or metal tray. “The patient should also be given a bib and glasses, and the dentist or their assistants should similarly wear protective coats, masks, and gloves,” Dr. Gonchar adds.

And if you want extra peace of mind, “ask for a tour of the office,” Dr. Cu suggests. “Most reputable teams will be proud to show you their sterilization area, and if not, dental assistants can usually explain the specific infection control procedures.” If the staff seems confused, annoyed, or unwilling to share these details, they may not have clear protocols in place (or just aren’t very friendly, which you also don’t want).

6. They offer only one treatment plan—with no alternative options.

This red flag is situational because in some cases, there really is only one course of action. “If a nasty tooth infection progresses to the point where your face is swollen and your overall health is at stake, for instance, extraction may really be the only solution,” Dr. Cu says.

However, “there is almost always more than one approach when making diagnoses or treatment plans, and your provider should offer several suggestions while explaining the risks and benefits of each,” Dr. Gonchar says. (After all, it’s ultimately up to you to choose what fits your needs and budget.)

So if a dentist pushes for only one elaborate—and possibly expensive—plan and insists there are no other alternatives, that could be a sign that they’re motivated by money, Dr. Gonchar warns. And even if their single solution isn’t particularly complex or costly, that may still be a red flag—they could be prioritizing speed and convenience, Dr. Cu says. (No one wants a dentist who’s in a hurry.)

7. They aren’t willing to break down the treatment process.

Speaking of treatment options, the difference between a quality and a crappy dentist is one who elaborates on all that complicated dental jargon (periodontitis or bruxism, anyone?) that you probably didn’t learn in school.

If you’re getting your wisdom teeth removed, for example, they should ideally review your X-rays with you and tell you which tooth (or teeth) will be treated and why the extraction is necessary in the first place. “They should also explain how the procedure will be completed—including the steps involved and proper aftercare instructions,” Dr. Cu says.

A dentist who leaves you in the dark, on the other hand, is not only signaling a lack of concern for your comfort, but also for your health—because if they don’t detail what to do and not do after your procedure (like telling you what foods to avoid, say, or how to properly clean the area where your tooth was removed), that can increase your risk of complications like an infection, Dr. Gonchar says.

8. They don’t explain the costs before the treatment.

It’s your dental team’s job to communicate—clearly and directly—all of the charges involved with a particular procedure before they perform it. “Do not commit to any dental work if you’re not sure what’s required financially,” Dr. Gonchar says. You want to know what you’re getting into so you’re not hit with hidden additional costs (like consultation, no-show, or administrative fees, which, she adds, may not always be directly mentioned).

Their candor should extend beyond your visit, too, according to Dr. Cu. Just like on a restaurant tab, your invoice should lay out all the different fees. Again, your dentist should be explaining each cost long before your bill arrives, but any reputable team will be happy to go over each charge if you’re still confused or think there’s an error.

Above all else, trust your gut. If your dentist is making you feel unsafe or unheard, or you’re just getting the impression that they’re not fully competent to perform a scary-sounding surgery, it’s more than okay to listen to that voice in your head telling you something’s off. Online reviews (from Google or Yelp, for example) or patient referrals are great ways to vet healthcare providers, Dr. Cu adds. That way, you can confidently sit back in that dentist’s chair and rest assured that you and your mouth are in safe (and sanitized) hands.


Originally Appeared on SELF