You’ve heard the standard recommendation before: visit the dentist two times a year for routine exams and cleanings. But if you’re someone who hasn’t seen a dentist in a long time — whether due to your schedule, dental anxiety, cost, or another reason — you may wonder what to expect before scheduling an appointment. We’re here to help!
Once you sign in and fill out paperwork (don’t forget to bring your driver’s license and dental insurance card), here are the basic steps most routine cleanings involve1.
First, the hygienist — who you’ll spend most of the appointment with — will cover your chest with a cloth so you don’t get any water or saliva on your clothing. Since there will be a light hanging over your head to help the hygienist see inside your mouth, they may also provide protective eyewear.
Once you’re comfortable, they’ll examine your mouth, tooth by tooth, with a mirror and dental probe to look for signs of potential issues. Swollen, red gums may signal gingivitis2, for instance, and dark spots on your teeth may be cavities3. This will help the hygienist focus on problem areas during the cleaning. If they spot any clear issues, they’ll consult with you and the dentist to determine the next treatment steps.
X-rays, if necessary
Hygienists are trained to spot issues inside your mouth, but the naked eye can’t see everything. That’s why they may take X-rays of your mouth during your first visit. Your dental health, age, and risk of disease will dictate how often you need X-rays thereafter4. The images can help the hygienist see the condition of your teeth, gums, and jaw, as well as spot cavities, gum disease, mouth cancer, crowded teeth, and other abnormalities.
While X-rays do involve radiation, the levels are extremely low and aren’t considered harmful4. The hygienist will also place a lead apron over your torso for extra protection. They’ll then place the X-ray sensor in your mouth and ask you to bite down. The sensor may be slightly uncomfortable, depending on its shape and the size of your mouth, but it shouldn’t cause any pain.
Plaque and tartar removal
This is an important aspect of the appointment because plaque leads to cavities and gum disease if it isn’t removed. While regular brushing and flossing can get rid of most plaque, they can’t eliminate all of it. Eventually, plaque can harden into tartar, which further increases the risk of cavities and gum disease because it can only be removed by a hygienist with special tools.
To address any plaque or tartar buildup, the hygienist will use a scaler on and between your teeth, as well as along the gumline. The scaler is about the size of a pencil and has hooks on the end. Don’t worry — the tool may look a little scary and you may hear some scraping during this part of the cleaning, but it shouldn’t cause any pain. Let the hygienist know if it does cause discomfort, though!
Brushing and flossing
The hygienist can address any remaining stains with a polisher and a mildly gritty toothpaste — you get to pick the flavor! The abrasive toothpaste serves a couple of purposes. In addition to removing stains a regular toothbrush can’t, it smooths your teeth to prevent bacteria from collecting in rough surfaces. After rinsing your mouth, they’ll floss your teeth to get rid of any lingering plaque.
Fluoride treatment, if necessary
Your hygienist may offer to put fluoride on your teeth after the cleaning. It comes as a gel or varnish and serves as a final protective layer to strengthen your enamel and fight against tooth decay. Note that while your dental plan may cover the full cost of the cleaning, you could have to pay out of pocket for fluoride. For this reason, it’s usually optional.
If you’re ready to schedule your next cleaning, use our Find a Dentist tool to find an in-network Beam provider near you! We can also help you learn what to look for in a dentist. If you're wondering what to expect during a tooth filling or root canal, we have you covered there, too!