Cleaning Teeth

"Prophylaxis" is the technical term for a teeth cleaning, and it's sometimes called just "prophy" for short. Professional teeth cleanings are recommended at 6-month intervals as part of your regular dental regimen, or more often if you struggle with periodontitis. A teeth cleaning helps to break up and remove plaque along and under the gumline, which helps to prevent the buildup of calculus (tartar). It's usually performed as a three- or four-step process using an ultrasonic device and hand tools. It's a painless treatment unless you have particularly sensitive teeth. It can be performed in a single office visit by a dentist or a dental hygienist.

The Need for Teeth Cleanings

Saliva has calcium in it, which is actually good for the teeth. However, calcium deposits can build up over time, leading to tartar. This is a substance to which bacteria can cling, leading, in turn, to gingivitis (inflammation of the gums). Regular brushing and flossing can prevent most of the problem, but a toothbrush can't reach all of the gum pockets or areas underneath the gumline. A teeth cleaning can reach all of these areas and remove plaque buildup so that your teeth can stay healthy.


  • Removes tartar, including in hard-to-reach places
  • Aesthetics—removes stains and discoloration
  • Treats bad breath caused by plaque buildup
  • Inexpensive treatment
  • Potential for early identification of health problems during dental checkups

Professional Teeth Cleaning

The teeth cleaning procedure begins with the use of an ultrasonic device. The instrument uses sound vibrations to loosen plaque buildup on the teeth. The dentist sprays the area with water at the same time to wash away the plaque and keep the area clean. The dentist starts by doing supragingival cleaning (above the gumline) and then moving on to subgingival cleaning (beneath the gumline).

This is followed by the use of a set of hand tools called curettes or scalers. These curved metal devices are used to scrape the surface of the teeth and in the gum pockets to remove additional plaque. This step is often the most uncomfortable part of the process for patients.

For more serious cases of plaque buildup, the dentist may have to perform what's called a root planing. The dentist will smooth the roots of the teeth in order to get rid of additional bacteria. This is often necessary for people suffering from periodontal disease. It may be necessary in just one section of the mouth or across the entire mouth depending on how widespread the problem is.

The dentist will then brush the teeth with a rotary machine, using a gritty prophylaxis toothpaste. This step will generally get the last bits of plaque removed and will polish the teeth to prevent further plaque buildup. The treatment usually concludes with either a dental flossing or a fluoride treatment.

Additional Treatments

Your dentist may require a set of X-rays before performing a teeth cleaning. This can help to identify problems that you were unaware of and will help him to spot any areas that may need extra attention during the cleaning.

If you've never had a teeth cleaning, or if it's been a long time since your last visit, a full mouth debridement may be necessary. The dentist will clean away a lot of calculus buildup in order to get a better look at the gums and bone.  


The cost of a teeth cleaning may or may not be covered by dental insurance. It depends on your individual policy, how high your deductible is and whether the deductible has been met. The cost of a routine teeth cleaning can range from $50 to $135, depending on your individual dentist's fees and other factors. X-Rays will add to the cost (about $50 to $100), and a full mouth debridement will cost more as well (up to $150).

If a root planing is needed, the cost goes up considerably. The mouth is divided into four quadrants, and the cost for root planing typically runs between $100 and $400 per quadrant. This can bring the total to about $1,600 for the entire mouth. In this case, the procedure will most likely be covered by dental insurance.


Regular teeth cleanings can be greatly beneficial parts of your dental hygiene regimen. When regular cleanings are performed and you also brush and floss each day, it becomes very difficult for gingivitis or periodontal disease to take hold in your mouth. Teeth cleaning can also be a confidence builder, and most people enjoy the fresh and clean feeling on their teeth after the treatment.

Risks and Complications

The vast majority of patients don't experience any pain during a teeth cleaning treatment. Yet some people are made uncomfortable by the ultrasonic device that's used in the cleaning. It gives off a humming or whistling sound, which is amplified inside the patient's head. Pain is typically caused if the dentist or hygienist is too rough. The scaling tools can cause pain if the gums are scraped or poked. Feel free to ask for a topical numbing gel to be applied to your gums if this is a concern or if you've had a bad experience in the past with a teeth cleaning.

Post-Treatment Care

Once you've had a teeth cleaning performed, there shouldn't be any need for additional office visits until your next checkup. Be sure to maintain a regular schedule of brushing at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day.

Finding the Right Dentist

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