An Overview of Teeth Polishing

Teeth polishing is a common dental procedure, often performed following a dental cleaning. Using specialized equipment, dentists or hygienists remove stains and discolorations from your teeth and smooth them out to provide a glossy, attractive finish. It’s typically a painless, well-tolerated procedure.

Teeth polishing is primarily done for cosmetic reasons, applying the “finishing touches” to enhance appearance. That said, it can also be used to help with exposed roots due to dental surgery. While it was once a part of every cleaning, current guidelines stress that it be applied more selectively because it can affect the outer layers of tooth enamel. This article provides a quick overview of this important procedure, including its benefits and aftercare.

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What Is Teeth Polishing?

Teeth polishing is a procedure to remove stains and smooth over tooth surfaces, making them shinier and more lustrous. It leaves teeth looking whiter, clearing up exogenous stains—that is, those caused by poor dental habits and hygiene.

Dentists or dental hygienists use rotary brushes, air polishers, or polishing strips—often alongside abrasive pastes—to polish the surfaces of the teeth. Often, teeth polishing accompanies other dental cleaning methods, such as scaling (the use of hand tools) and debridement (using a special electric device) to remove tartar and plaque.

Teeth polishing refers to a set of dental procedures aimed at enhancing the color and shininess of your teeth. 

Types of Teeth Polishing

Teeth polishing procedures can be broken down into four types. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Therapeutic polishing: In some cases, dental surgery exposes the cementum of the tooth, which is the hard tissue layer that covers the root of the tooth. Polishing these areas helps remove the microflora and endotoxins caused by the buildup of the bacteria there.
  • Cosmetic polishing: Also known as coronal polishing—and actually not strictly a cosmetic procedure—the aim of this type is to remove plaque and stains from teeth. It relies on the use of abrasive pastes to create a shiny, reflective white color.
  • Superficial polishing: A purely cosmetic dental procedure, this is when dentists focus on polishing the crowns of the teeth.    
  • Selective polishing: This is the strategic use of polishing to remove any remaining stains or discolorations following scaling and other cleaning procedures.  

Types of Teeth Polishing Instruments

Notably, teeth polishing procedures also differ based on the instruments used. Here, there are several options:

  • The porte polisher is a simple handheld device that has a point that rubs abrasive substances to areas that need polishing. It lets dentists access difficult-to-reach surfaces in the mouth.
  • Polishing strips placed on problem areas can also help, though these can be more abrasive.
  • Engine-driven polishers are handheld devices that employ plastic brushes or cups to take on stains and shine the enamel.
  • Air polishers (also known as air powder polishers), devices that project a mixture of air, water, and abrasive to the teeth, can access areas that other types cannot.
  • Vector system polishing involves no cups or brushes, relying on a solution of polishing fluid and silicon carbide abrasive fluid.

While teeth polishing is primarily a cosmetic procedure, it may also be used therapeutically if inner layers of teeth are exposed following surgery. Strips, porte polishers, other engine-driven types, and air polishers may all be used.

Benefits

Traditionally, a primary benefit of polishing was thought to be that it made it tougher for bacteria to stick to the teeth. However, more recent research has shown that, within a half-hour, bacteria development is seen regardless of whether a procedure has been done.

Still, there are a number of benefits to teeth polishing, including:

  • It effectively removes exogenous stains, such as from foods, drinks, poor dental hygiene, or smoking.
  • It hinders the development of plaque on the teeth, which causes decay and cavities.
  • By improving the appearance of the teeth, it helps restore confidence.
  • Therapeutically, it can help prevent bacteria formation on exposed roots.

How Much Does Teeth Polishing Cost?

The costs of teeth polishing procedures and dental cleanings vary a great deal and are based on a number of factors. These include:

  • Extent of cleaning: Much depends on whether you need more extensive cleaning, more routine work, or are electing for cosmetic polishing. Without insurance, the cost of a dental cleaning ranges from $75 to $200 or more.
  • Specialist vs. general care: Working with a dental hygienist—as opposed to a dentist—may also affect the cost.
  • Insurance coverage: Depending on your plan, routine annual cleanings that include polishing may even be covered entirely. However, insurance coverage may become more limited if more extensive cleaning is needed, or if the work is purely cosmetic.
  • Additional care: In cases of gum infection or a great deal of plaque and tartar buildup, anesthetic and deeper cleaning may be needed. This may incur additional costs.

How much you'll pay out-of-pocket for teeth polishing depends on the amount and kind of cleaning needed, whether a specialist is performing the work, and your insurance coverage, among other factors. In the United States, without insurance, a typical dental cleaning costs between $75 and $200.

Precautions

While there certainly are benefits to teeth polishing, it can also have some negative consequences. This procedure erodes the outer, fluoride-rich layers of tooth enamel, and it takes three months for them to become restored. This is why current recommendations are that polishing be used selectively, reversing course from it being standard with every cleaning.

Notably, teeth polishing should be attempted only when the discoloration or staining is extrinsic (due to poor dental hygiene, habits, and foods) rather than intrinsic (arising due to internal factors). In addition, several cases may contraindicate teeth polishing or the use of certain polishing pastes, including:

  • Acute gingivitis or periodontitis
  • Aesthetic restorations (ceramic, composite, and/or porcelain to fix teeth or as implants)
  • Allergy to the abrasive or solution being used
  • Cavities or problems with enamel
  • Exposed inner portions of enamel (dentin and cementum)
  • Decalcification (low calcium levels) of teeth
  • Newly formed teeth
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Respiratory issues 

Aftercare

Following polishing, you’ll want to give your mouth and teeth some time to recover. Your dentist or hygienist will give you specific instructions, but in general, you should avoid eating and drinking for at least 30 minutes following your appointment. Expect some gum soreness for up to three days afterward; Advil (ibuprofen), Tylenol (acetaminophen), or other over-the-counter pain medications can help.

Summary

Teeth polishing involves smoothing out the surfaces of teeth to give them an attractive, shiny appearance. Often done following other means of removing plaque and tartar, the procedure can get rid of extrinsic stains on teeth (those caused by poor dental habits). Teeth polishing was once a standard part of every cleaning, but current recommendations are that this be applied selectively.

A Word From Verywell

Dental care and ensuring healthy teeth is a multifaceted process. On top of developing good at-home habits, such as brushing, flossing, and avoiding certain foods, regular cleaning and teeth polishing at a dentist’s office are essential.

It is no longer standard to receive polishing as part of the annual or semiannual routine dental visit. However, teeth polishing can be beneficial if used selectively and strategically. When your teeth are healthy—and their appearance is shiny and lustrous—you truly have a reason to smile.   

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is air polishing teeth?

    Air polishing is a technique that relies on using a specialized handheld device that projects a combination of air, water, and abrasive material (usually sodium bicarbonate) to remove stains, discolorations, and buildup on teeth. Using this approach, dentists or hygienists can access surfaces below the gumline that other methods, such as using porte polishers or strips, can’t.

  • Does teeth polishing hurt?

    Unlike with other procedures such as scaling (scraping tartar and plaque from the teeth and gumline), pain should be minimal during teeth polishing. Some people who have sensitive teeth and gums may require a topical or an injected anesthetic to ease discomfort.

  • What types of stains does teeth polishing remove?

    Teeth polishing won’t work for every kind of discoloration. It works only for what are called exogeneous stains, which are those caused by poor dental care and external factors, including:

    • Certain foods you eat
    • Coffee or tea drinking
    • Smoking or chewing tobacco
    • Sodas, juices, or other beverages

    These types of stains are typically orange, yellow, brown, or black in color.

  • What tools do dentists use during teeth polishing?


    Currently, dentists and dental hygienists have several instruments to choose from to perform cleaning, including:

    • Porte polisher: An engine-driven handheld device; the polishing is performed by a vibrating and/or spinning brush or cup.
    • Air polisher: Able to reach parts of the tooth that other types can’t, air polishers project a stream of air, water, and abrasive to polish surfaces.
    • Polishing strips: In some cases, strips with abrasive and polishing fluid can be attached to surfaces to remove discolorations.
  • Is teeth polishing necessary?

    Traditionally, teeth polishing was considered a standard part of routine dental cleaning. However, in addition to discolorations, polishing removes outer layers of tooth enamel, and it takes three months for these to grow back. This being the case, current recommendations are that it be applied selectively to take on stains that persist after other kinds of cleaning. 

  • What’s the difference between dental cleaning and dental polishing?

    Polishing refers specifically to procedures that smooth out, whiten, and add a lustrous quality to the teeth. In contrast, dental cleaning is work aimed specifically at removing plaque and tartar buildup from the teeth and gumline. The latter may involve scaling (scraping the teeth), deep cleaning, and expert flossing.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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