Hygienist performing a dental cleaning on a female patient

What Happens During Your Dental Cleaning

Going to the dentist is something a lot of people dread doing. At least one study has shown that more than 60% of people around the world are afraid of those appointments, some of them even saying it’s so bad they have NEVER visited a dentist. Some of that fear could stem from not knowing what happens during a routine dental cleaning.

All of the scraping, poking, prodding, and the sound of that drill can make you cringe. There’s a reason behind those methods, though. Let’s break down what those scary looking and sounding tools do and why they’re important for your oral health.

The Importance of Regular Cleanings

Your daily brushing and flossing routine helps remove harmful bacteria from your mouth. That bacteria can turn into hardened plaque and tartar. The problem is brushing and flossing can’t get in all the spaces that plaque finds its way into.

That’s where those tools come in. Everything the hygienist uses to scratch and scrape on your teeth is designed to remove plaque that brushing and flossing can’t get rid of. If left untreated, you’re likely to end up with other health issues to deal with.

When that tartar and plaque build up, it begins to eat away at the enamel on your teeth. That’s how cavities develop. Cavities and tooth decay can also cause bad breath that won’t go away. The only way to fix it is to get a dental cleaning so a professional can remove the buildup.

The buildup can also eventually lead to gum disease. Plaque and tartar can get below the gum line and irritate your gums. The inflammation causes small pockets to form. Food and bacteria can hide in those pockets, which will make the inflammation worse. That eventually leads to gum disease if not addressed.

All of these conditions can result in tooth loss. When it comes to gum disease, you can also experience bone loss, which further complicates the issue. Merely getting a teeth cleaning twice a year can save you the trouble of dealing with all these problems.

Dental Cleaning Process

Even though you know why getting regular teeth cleaning is important, it still might not make you any less anxious about getting it done. We’ll walk you through the dental cleaning process so you know what’s happening every step of the way.


Before taking any action, a dental hygienist will first do an examination of your mouth. The hygienist will look for spots where there’s plaque or tartar buildup, dark spots on your teeth, any gum inflammation, or anything else that could be cause for concern.

If there’s anything that looks a little more serious, the hygienist may call in the dentist to take a look. They won’t want to start working until they’ve decided the best course of action to get your teeth and gums back in top shape.

This is also the part of the dental cleaning process where you’ll be asked if there are any areas of concern you have noticed or if you’ve got any questions about what’s going to happen during your cleaning. Don’t be shy. Get answers to your questions so you can get rid of any anxiety you might still be having about the procedure.

Dentist uses a scaler to remove plaque and tartar during a teeth cleaning.

Removing Plaque and Tartar

Here’s where those scary tools get started. The hygienist will use something called a scaler to scratch and scrape any plaque or tartar off of your teeth. It’s the little sharp, hook-looking tool.

The hygienist will scrape off any of the bad stuff that’s still stuck to your teeth. The more of a buildup there is, the more scraping will have to be done. The scalar can also remove plaque from below the gum line and in between your teeth where your toothbrush can’t reach.

If this is your least favorite part of the experience, it’s all the more reason the be vigilant with your daily brushing and flossing routine. That’s how you prevent plaque and tartar from building up between your dental cleanings.

The better you are about brushing and flossing, the less scraping the hygienist will have to do.

Teeth Polishing

Now that the vast majority of the buildup has been removed, it’s time to get those pearly whites, well, pearly again.

The tool of choice for this task is a sort of high-powered electric toothbrush. It has a rubber cup on the end of it where the hygienist will apply a gritty toothpaste called prophylaxis paste. The paste will scrub off any leftover plaque and polish your teeth.

The sound and feel of this tool could be another source of anxiety or discomfort. It makes the high-pitched sound like a drill, which can be a little scary. It also feels a little bit like grinding on your teeth while it’s in operation.

If it starts freaking you out a little, just remember it’s going to make your oral health much better in the long run. And just think about how smooth and shiny your teeth are going to look!

Professional Flossing

You’re in the home stretch now. The worst part is over. Now the hygienist will reach for the traditional floss for one more pass between all your teeth.

There’s no horror movie-looking tool used here. It’s just good old-fashioned floss. Your hygienist will go thoroughly between your teeth and down around the gum line to ensure all of the plaque has been removed.

During this part, you might also get some questions about your flossing habits or told about some spots you should really focus on when you’re flossing on your own. Pay close attention. Following any advice given at this stage can help your next have less scraping from the scaler.

Fluoride Treatment

Sometimes your hygienist might apply a fluoride treatment to help protect your teeth from cavities until your next visit.

There are a couple of different forms this could come in. Some offices will use a fluoride gel or foam that will be placed into a mouthpiece. You’ll then wear the mouthpiece for about a minute before the hygienist removes it.

The other common method is a little different. It’s more of a tacky varnish that will be painted onto your teeth. The moisture in your mouth hardens it, so you can eat and drink after it’s applied, but you won’t be allowed to brush for a certain amount of time afterward.

Final Inspection

Your cleaning is all wrapped up! Now it’s time for the dentist to come in and give your fresh teeth a look. The dentist will do a check for gum disease and look at any alignment issues you may have. They will also look at any sealants or fillings you may have gotten in the past to make sure those are still in good shape.

Keep Up With Daily Maintenance

Knowing a little bit more about exactly what’s happening while you’re laying in that chair can help you feel more at ease during your dental cleaning. The scary sounds and feelings aren’t as bad when you know what they’re doing and why.

The bottom line here is you have the power to make these routine teeth cleaning appointments as quickly as possible. Being vigilant with your brushing and flossing on a daily basis will result in less plaque and tartar for the hygienist to scrape off. A little work every day can save you a lot of pain later on.