The Ugly Truth About Your Toothbrush

October 9, 2018

Do you know what’s lurking on your toothbrush?
Researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K. say there are more than 100 million bacteria on your toothbrush, including E. coli and Staphylococcus (Staph). And the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that your toothbrush also has fecal bacteria on it.

It all sounds gross, but you don’t have to panic. Your mouth is full of bacteria too, and your toothbrush probably won’t make you sick, but there are ways to keep it clean so you can stay healthy.

Bacteria in your mouth.
“We have (hundreds of) microbes in our mouths every day,” says Gayle McCombs, RDH, MS, associate professor and director of the Center for Dental Hygiene Research at Old Dominion University.

Even plaque – the stuff you’re trying to brush off your teeth – is a type of bacteria.

Unless there’s an unhealthy balance of bacteria in your mouth, these aren’t a cause for concern.

How Brushing Hurts Your Teeth
Brushing your teeth, especially with an electric toothbrush, can actually push bacteria under your gums, says R. Thomas Glass, DDS, PhD, a professor of dentistry and pathology at Oklahoma State University’s Health Sciences Center.

Most of these bacteria are already present in your mouth, so you probably won’t get sick from them. However, if someone else uses your toothbrush (or if you use someone else’s toothbrush), germs can be spread.

What you need to worry about is getting sick repeatedly.” When your resistance is low, that’s when it’s clinically important,” he says.” Essentially, you’re re-infecting yourself,” says Glass.

Is your toothbrush making you sick?
You may not get an infection from your own toothbrush. Even if your toothbrush is covered in bacteria, your immune system can usually take care of any bacterial invaders. However, you should still properly care for your toothbrush and keep it clean. The slideshow below discusses some ways to properly care for and store your toothbrush to reduce your chances of getting sick.

Don’t brush your teeth where you flush.
Where you store your toothbrush in the bathroom is important. In most bathrooms, the toilet is close to the sink and most people keep their toothbrushes there. Every time you flush, bacteria is released into the air – you don’t want that bacteria on your toothbrush.

“It’s just common sense to store your toothbrush as far away from the toilet as possible,” McCombs says. If possible, keep it in a medicine cabinet and be sure to close the toilet lid before flushing to reduce the spread of germs on your toothbrush.

toothbrush holder
Toothbrush racks can also pick up bacteria spread by toilet flushing. A study by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) found that toothbrush holders are the third most germ-ridden household item (after dishwashing sponges and kitchen sinks). Remember to clean your toothbrush holder regularly to remove germs.

Toothbrush Storage Tips
After you’ve kept your toothbrush as far away from the toilet as possible and cleaned your toothbrush holder, here are some storage tips to keep your toothbrush as germ-free as possible.

Thoroughly rinse your toothbrush with tap water each time you use it.
Allow your toothbrush to dry thoroughly between brushes. Don’t use a toothbrush cover, as it creates a moist, enclosed place for bacteria to grow.
Stand your toothbrush upright in the toothbrush holder, rather than lying down.
Never use someone else’s toothbrush or allow someone else to use yours.
Use the toothbrushes separately. If the toothbrushes touch, they will exchange bacteria.

Does toothbrush sanitizer really work?
There are some products that claim to sanitize toothbrushes. Some use ultraviolet light, while others spray or rinse. There are even brushes that have built-in antibacterial bristles. While some of these products do kill some bacteria, there’s no evidence that using them will reduce your risk of getting sick.

The American Dental Association (ADA) states that soaking your toothbrush in antibacterial mouthwash after use can reduce the amount of bacteria on your toothbrush.

Just make sure you don’t try to sterilize your toothbrush in the microwave or dishwasher. According to the ADA, most toothbrushes are not made to withstand these conditions, and doing so can damage your toothbrush and reduce its effectiveness.

When to Throw Away Your Toothbrush
The ADA recommends replacing your toothbrush every three to four months, or more frequently if the bristles are worn, if you are sick, or if you have a weakened immune system. For electric toothbrushes, replace the brush head as often as you would replace a regular disposable toothbrush. Children’s toothbrushes may be replaced more frequently than adult toothbrushes.

Practicing Good Oral Care
Remember, “Bacteria can cause gum disease, and tooth decay, and bad breath,” says dentist Kimberly Harms, DDS, ADA, a consumer advisor. Harms recommends brushing and flossing as often as possible and rinsing your mouth with an antibacterial mouthwash before brushing to eliminate bacteria before they get into your toothbrush.