Maintaining good oral hygiene for a healthy mouth and beautiful smile means visiting your dentist twice annually for a cleaning or more depending on the conditions of teeth and gums. For various reasons, ranging from lack of time to lack of insurance, some individuals never quite get into the routine of regular dental cleanings. Once they’re in a position to take control of their oral health, they often wonder, “What happens during a teeth cleaning?” This is also the question often asked of children when they’re about to see a dentist for the first time. In this article, we'll take you through the step-by-step process of a teeth cleaning, from the moment you sit in the dentist's chair to when you leave with a refreshed clean mouth.

Intake Process

Your teeth cleaning visit begins with completing any necessary paperwork and providing an updated medical history to our dental office. It's important that you are honest and thorough when sharing your health history, as it helps the dental team make informed decisions about your care. For example, if you are a cardiac patient who requires antibiotics one hour before a dental cleaning, that is critical information for your dentist to have in your record. 

Physical Examination

Before your cleaning begins, a dental hygienist or dentist will perform a comprehensive examination of your mouth. They will use a small mirror and a dental explorer to inspect your teeth and gums for any signs of dental or oral issues. This examination helps identify cavities, gum disease, or other potential problems that might require additional treatment.

Gum Check

Healthy gums are just as important as healthy teeth. To ensure your gums are in good condition, part of your physical examination will include checking for any signs of gum disease, recession, or inflammation. They will measure the space between your teeth and gums, known as the periodontal pockets, using a small probe. If the pockets are too deep, it may indicate gum disease and further treatment may be required.


If it’s been a while since your last dental visit, dental X-rays will be taken to help your dentist detect any issues that aren't visible to the human eye during a visual examination. This includes cavities between teeth, problems with the jawbone, or impacted wisdom teeth. You'll have a lead apron protecting the rest of your body from the radiation, and the dental assistant will insert the X-ray sensor into your mouth in various positions to capture images of all your teeth.

Plaque and Tartar Removal

Once the initial examination and any X-rays are complete, the actual cleaning begins. Your dental hygienist will start by using an instrument has water and vibration called a Cavitron to remove the majority of plaque and tartar buildup from the surfaces of your teeth. A  small, metal tool called a scaler will be used to scrap all the remaining buildup. Plaque is a sticky, bacteria-filled film that can lead to tooth decay and gum disease if not removed regularly. Tartar, on the other hand, is a hardened plaque and can only be removed by a dental professional. Regular brushing and flossing cannot remove tartar. This is why it is important to see your dentist at least twice a year to keep your mouth nice and healthy.

Brushing with Gritty Toothpaste

After plaque and tartar removal, your dental hygienist will use a high-powered electric toothbrush and gritty toothpaste to give your teeth a polished finish. This toothpaste is more abrasive than over-the-counter toothpaste used at home, polishing your teeth and removing any remaining surface stains and plaque more effectively leaving you with nice smooth and usually whiter teeth.


Even if you consistently floss at home, a trained dental assistant will floss your teeth more effectively and thoroughly. They will use professional-grade dental floss to reach between your teeth and remove any remaining plaque and debris. This step is important in ensuring that every surface of your teeth is clean and free from potential dental issues.


After all the previous steps have occurred, the dental assistant will rinse your mouth to remove any remaining toothpaste, or other debris. Your dental assistant may provide you with a cup of water to rinse in the sink or bathroom.

Fluoride Treatment

Fluoride is a vital mineral used to help maintain healthy teeth. After your teeth are thoroughly cleaned, your dental hygienist may highly recommend applying a fluoride varnish to help strengthen your enamel, making it more resistant to acid and preventing cavities. After applying the fluoride varnish, you'll be asked to wait a few minutes before rinsing or eating to allow the fluoride to work. We have see a lot of patients benefit from fluoride treatment ranging from cavity prevention to eliminating sensitive teeth.

Discussion and Recommendations

If a dental hygienist performed all of the above steps, you’ll be asked to sit for a few minutes while you wait for the dentist to come evaluate your cleaning and your mouth. He or she will also discuss the results of your examination, X-rays, and the condition of your teeth and gums. With all of this information at their disposal, they will provide recommendations for any necessary treatments, such as fillings, root canals, or other dental procedures. They may also provide you with specific care recommendations, such as using a particular toothbrush, toothpaste, or mouthwash, or advise you on lifestyle changes to improve your dental health.

Scheduling Your Next Appointment

To maintain optimal oral health, schedule your next dental cleaning before you leave the office. Regular check-ups and cleanings are key to preventing dental problems and catching issues early.

A thorough teeth cleaning is an essential part of maintaining good oral health. From the initial examination to the final post-cleaning care instructions, every step in the process plays a crucial role in keeping your teeth and gums in the best condition possible. Always remember to keep up your regular brushing and flossing at home too. You can learn more about dental cleanings from the Cleveland Clinic, or if you have additional questions, contact us.