Close up of a patient's teeth cleaning

Step-by-Step Guide to Teeth Cleaning

Learn the procedures, steps, risks, and requirements for teeth cleaning.

Close up of a patient's teeth cleaning

Teeth cleanings may not be the highlight of a dental worker’s day. They certainly aren’t a joyful occasion for the patient. However, teeth cleanings are more than essential to a patient’s overall health. Mastering this skill will provide a much better experience for dental professionals and their patients.

Teeth cleaning is a vital practice for the prevention of various medical issues. Long periods without professional teeth cleaning can lead to gingivitis, gum disease, and future decay. Therefore, it’s essential to follow the proper method of teeth cleaning to ensure patient health.

This article focuses on the art and science of teeth cleaning, one of the most important dental procedures for medical staff.

(Click here to see our list of the most common Dental Assisting duties and responsibilities).

Teeth Cleaning Definition

What is Teeth Cleaning?

Teeth cleaning is a critical component of oral hygiene. It removes dental plaque and helps prevent cavities, gingivitis, and periodontal disease.

The process usually includes these steps:

  • Performing a physical exam
  • Removing plaque and tartar
  • Polishing the teeth
  • Flossing and locating trouble spots
  • Instructing the patient to rinse with mouthwash
  • Applying fluoride treatment (optional)

What is the Purpose of Teeth Cleaning?

Teeth cleanings are a standard procedure that’s usually performed for one of the following reasons:

  1. To remove bacteria, plaque, or tartar buildup
  2. To give patients a great smile
  3. To help prevent decay and gum disease

How Long Does it Take to Perform Teeth Cleaning?

If you have healthy teeth, then a dental cleaning should only take about 30 minutes to complete. However, if you have cavities or tartar buildup, then a teeth cleaning can take an hour or more. A good rule of thumb is this: the more time you spend maintaining your oral health, the less time you’ll spend in the dentist’s chair.

Who Can Perform Teeth Cleaning?

Dental hygienists typically perform teeth cleaning. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these healthcare professionals offer preventive care, assess patients for signs of oral diseases, and educate patients on oral health. While a dentist supervises dental hygienists, hygienists may supervise Dental Assistants.

DAs, on the other hand, are not allowed to clean teeth. This is because the procedure requires specialized training. However, they often assist dentists or dental hygienists during teeth cleaning by handing them instruments, sterilizing equipment before and after appointments, and communicating with the patients.

(Go here to learn how to become a Dental Assistant).

Students completing admissions process

Training Requirements for Teeth Cleaning

Teeth cleaning requirements often vary and will depend on your location and profession. For instance, dental hygienists usually need to earn an associate or a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. Some may earn a master’s degree, though this path is less common.

Dental hygiene programs typically take about three years to complete. They include both clinical and classroom instruction. The Commission on Dental Accreditation accredits over 300 dental hygiene programs in the United States. In addition, every state requires that dental hygienists obtain a license. Contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners for specific requirements.

Start your new career path with formal Dental Assistant training. This tactic provides valuable experience, networking opportunities, and career insights. For example, at Unitek College, our Dental Assisting program students learn how to assist dentists and dental hygienists during teeth cleanings and other patient exams.

Teeth Cleaning Procedure

Like any other skill, teeth cleaning requires time and practice to get it right. So the first step is to understand proper teeth cleaning procedures.

Teeth Cleaning Prep

Have your supplies ready! Some dental offices have pre-made kits, while others will require you to retrieve the supplies yourself. Teeth cleaning tools generally include dental mirrors, scalers, periodontal probes, polishers, and saliva ejectors.

Teeth Cleaning Steps

Here are general guidelines you should follow when performing teeth cleaning tasks:

  1. Complete a physical exam.
  2. Remove plaque and tartar.
  3. Apply professional-grade toothpaste before cleaning the teeth.
  4. Floss the patient’s teeth.
  5. Give the patient a small cup of mouthwash and instruct them to rinse with it.
  6. Apply fluoride treatment to the teeth.


It may take five to seven days for a patient’s gums to heal after a deep cleaning. During this period, they may experience minor bleeding or swelling in their gums. Their teeth may also be a little more sensitive than usual. After the procedure, patients should wait 30 minutes before eating or drinking, steer clear of hot foods and drinks for four hours after the cleaning, and brush gently before bed.

Necessary Equipment for Teeth Cleaning

Typically, the supplies for teeth cleaning include the following items:

  • Dental Mirrors
  • Scalers
  • Perio Probes
  • Curettes
  • Polishers
  • Saliva Ejectors
  • Ultrasonic Scalers
  • Digital X-Rays
  • Intraoral Cameras

Dental professional examining a woman's mouth

Potential Risks or Complications of Teeth Cleaning

The following are some of the potential risks or complications that you may face when performing teeth cleaning on patients:

  • Sensitive teeth Once you have removed a layer of tartar, the surface of the patient’s teeth will be exposed to air, liquids, and foods of varying temperatures. This should only last for a few days. In the meantime, instruct the patient to use toothpaste for sensitive teeth.
  • Sore or bleeding gums Removing plaque or tartar near or on the gum line can cause swelling, bleeding, or soreness. This should also be temporary. It’s recommended that the patient take over-the-counter pain medications.
  • Gaps between teeth Sometimes, plaque and tartar fill gaps between your teeth. After they are removed, it can feel like a new gap has been created, but it’s the opposite.

Pro Tips for Mastering the Art of Teeth Cleaning

Some basic teeth cleaning tips involve planning, a friendly disposition, and good use of tools. Here are other pro tips that may assist you in the future.

  • Prepare your supplies in advance – This one probably goes without saying, but preparation is a timesaver. For example, if your patient is due for radiographs, put holders and bite tabs within easy reach. Alternatively, if you know your next patient has bridges or implants, put some preferred flossers and home care implements in their to-go bag.
  • Always be friendly and welcome your patients – A smile can help lessen a patient’s nerves. Remember that some people dread visiting the dentist and will be on edge. The session is likely to go more smoothly if you help put them at ease.
  • Raise the chair whenever necessary – For instance, if you aren’t bending or stooping to take a radiograph, your back will appreciate it later!
  • Distract patients who gag – Ask your patient to lift an arm or a leg until you’ve finished exposing the radiograph. This simple distraction technique often works. If not, keep talking to them, and maintain a friendly disposition.
  • Use the intraoral camera – It can be helpful for your patients to see any dental concerns. So, use the intraoral camera and project it to a screen in the exam room. This will allow patients to observe what you’re doing in real-time throughout the appointment. Give them before and after photos of plaque or stain removal if possible.
  • Use air to check your calculus removal technique – Air can help you determine whether your tartar removal has been thorough or not. In addition, it can highlight areas you may have missed, allowing you to tackle the most stubborn deposits.
  • Request prophy paste holders for the office – These little “ring” holders can make all the difference. They loop around your finger and keep prophy paste on hand.
  • Knot your floss – Try this technique to clean food traps or large embrasure spaces. Keep in mind that the size of your knot will depend on the size of the space, so adjust accordingly.
  • Correctly insert your mouth mirror so it won’t fog up – It’s important to insert the face of your mouth mirror on the inside of the patient’s cheek. This will cause it to match the temperature of your patient’s mouth. If that doesn’t work, lightly dampen a clean cotton swab with mouthwash to wipe the mirror.
  • Instruct patients to move as necessary – Rather than move a patient’s head yourself and cause more resistance, ask the patient to lift or lower their chin as necessary. This tactic is both safer and healthier for all parties involved.
  • Champion your patient – Along the way, vocalize all the good things you see your patient doing at home. For example, maybe they’ve flossed more, and you can tell by the healthier state of their gums. Even a little encouragement can make a big difference.

Why Should Dental Assistants Learn How to Assist a Teeth Cleaning Session?

Without regular teeth cleanings, we could all suffer from various medical issues, including gingivitis and gum disease. Infections can also spread from the mouth to other parts of your body. Therefore, oral health is vital to our overall health.

Thankfully, Dental Assistants can significantly increase the efficiency of the dental care team. When they assist dentists and dental hygienists during teeth cleanings, they help them deliver the highest quality of oral healthcare. They also help them see more patients in a single day. This means that you can improve the general health of your community.

While teeth cleaning assistance isn’t a job requirement for every DA, it is a valuable skill that leads to more significant opportunities. It would be advantageous for DAs or aspiring Dental Assistants to pursue training in this area. Once experienced, a DA would likely become more helpful to their employer and earn better career prospects.

Woman smiling at a dental professional

Start Your Career in Dental Assisting

Teeth cleaning is a crucial skill aspiring Dental Assistants or dental hygienists should consider learning about for their careers. It’s also an essential dental practice for several diagnoses, tests, and other routine procedures.

Think about it—without proper and routine maintenance of our mouth, we may suffer from a host of dangers. Regular dental appointments are about preventing potential issues just as much as they are about cleaning your teeth.

If you’re feeling inspired and want to pursue a career in medicine, Unitek College offers various healthcare programs, such as our Dental Assisting program.

Contact us today to learn more about our programs and tuition assistance options. Take the first step toward a rewarding future in healthcare!