Do I need to worry about brushing my teeth too hard? Here’s what dentists have to say

Brushing teeth too hard can be harmful.
Brushing teeth too hard can wear down the enamel, aka the protective layer on your teeth. (Photo illustration: Jay Sprogell for Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Brushing your teeth twice a day every day, flossing regularly and swishing the right mouthwash are all vital dental habits that maintain your oral health. That’s pretty obvious, right?

But when it comes to applying pressure, does it help — or hurt — to brush hard? Perhaps surprisingly, getting overzealous with your toothbrush isn’t helping matters.

What’s happening

If you’re a hard brusher, you’re not alone. Between 10% and 20% of Americans have overbrushed and damaged their teeth and/or gums.

Dr. Nicole Mackie, founder of Dr. Nicole Mackie Dental Implant Specialty Center in Las Vegas, has treated many “overzealous brushers.” But get this: She says the idea that harder brushing means cleaner teeth is an illusion.

“Brushing isn’t like hand-washing dishes, where the harder you scrub, the cleaner they become,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Teeth require tender love and care. Brushing isn’t about force; it’s about technique and consistency.”

Do I need to worry?

If you’ve been brushing hard, try not to stress. Instead, focus on brushing more gently going forward, as there are risks. Mackie says overbrushing can wear down the enamel, the protective layer on your teeth, potentially leading to sensitive teeth, a receding gumline or other periodontal issues.

Dr. Whitney White, a dentist and owner of Aspen Dental in Las Vegas, agrees, saying that noticeable gum recession, aka your teeth appearing longer, and increased sensitivity to hot and cold foods are indicators you may want to ease up.

“Once the enamel is worn down, it doesn’t regenerate, and this can increase your risk of cavities,” White tells Yahoo Life. Additionally, she says that gum recession can lead to a sensitive root area, potentially leading to decay or worse, tooth loss.

What can I do about it?

How do you know if you’re applying the right amount of pressure? One tip is to pretend you're brushing a ripe tomato. “Ideally, you’d want to apply just enough pressure to clean the surface without squashing it,” Mackie explains.

White describes this pressure as “just enough to feel the bristles against your gums and teeth.”

With an electric toothbrush, Mackie adds, this means almost no pressure. She notes that some electric toothbrushes will alert you if you’re brushing too hard. “The electric toothbrush takes the guesswork out of it,” she says.

With a manual toothbrush, imagine it’s a paintbrush. “You’d want the brush strokes to be light, delicate and purposeful,” Mackie says. “Brushing is not about exerting brute force but maintaining consistency and coverage.”

To make that easier, White has a couple of suggestions. “Try using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth,” she says. “Another tip is to hold your toothbrush with just your fingertips to control the pressure better.”

You can also check the toothbrush itself for signs of brushing too hard. “If it looks like your toothbrush just woke up from a wild night of drinking, with its bristles frayed and fanned out within a few weeks of use, that’s a red flag,” Mackie says.

When choosing a toothbrush, White, Mackie and the American Dental Association recommend opting for soft bristles. “Hard bristles can cause abrasions to the teeth and gums, especially if you’re using a heavy hand,” White explains.

That said, “There may be specific cases or dental appliances where firmer bristles are appropriate, but these are less common,” Mackie notes.

The main takeaway

Make sure you’re only using light pressure when brushing your teeth. Otherwise, down the road, you may find yourself with tooth sensitivity or receding gums — and a hefty dental bill.

Dentists say using soft-bristled toothbrushes, brushing with your nondominant hand or having a light grip on your toothbrush and paying attention to how your toothbrush looks (and changing it every three to four months) are some ways you can avoid and be mindful of overbrushing.

As White puts it: “It’s not a scrubbing competition; it’s a gentle dance with your toothbrush.”