Scale & Polish - Professional Dental Cleaning

By: Shelbourne Dental Clinic  05/12/2011
Keywords: Teeth, Tartar, Prophylaxis


The professional cleaning of teeth is sometimes referred to as ‘Prophylaxis’ (or prophy for short). It’s a Greek word which means “to prevent beforehand” – in this case, it helps prevent gum disease. Most people refer to the procedure as a “Scale & Polish.”

Dental cleanings involve removing plaque (a soft, sticky layer of bacteria, food & saliva) and hard tartar (calculus) deposits that have built up on the teeth over time. Your teeth are continually bathed in saliva which contains calcium and other substances which help strengthen and protect your teeth. While this is definitely beneficial, it unfortunately means that we tend to get a build-up of calcium deposits on the teeth. This chalky substance will build up over time, almost like the limescale deposits at the base of your kettle. Usually it is tooth coloured and can easily be mistaken as part of the teeth, but it can also vary from brown to black in colour.

If this tartar is allowed to build up on the teeth, it will unfortunately provide the right conditions for bacteria to thrive beside the gums. The purpose of cleaning and polishing is basically to leave the surfaces of the teeth beautifully clean and smooth so that bacteria are unable to stick to them and so provide you a better chance of keeping the teeth clean during your regular daily hygiene regeme.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How are teeth cleaned?

At Shelbourne Dental Clinic, we use special instruments to gently remove these deposits without harming your teeth or gums. The instruments which may be used during your cleaning, and what they feel like, are described here :

> Ultrasonic Instrumentation

We will often use this instrument first. It uses ‘tickling vibrations‘ to knock larger pieces of tartar loose. It also sprays a cooling mist of water while it works to wash away debris and keep the area at a proper temperature. The device typically emits a humming or high pitched whistling sound as it operates.

The ultrasonic instrument tips are curved and rounded and are always kept in motion around the teeth. They are not sharp as their sole purpose is to simply knock tartar loose. If sensations are too strong or ticklish, we  can adjust the setting appropriately on our ultrasonic cleaner & modify the pressure applied.

If large deposits of tartar have settled on your teeth, it can take some time to remove these, just like trying to remove baked-on grime on a stove that has been left over a long time. So your first cleaning may take longer than future cleanings.

> Hand Instrumentation

Once the larger pieces of tartar are gone, we will switch to finer hand tools (called scalers and curettes) to remove smaller deposits and smoothen the tooth surfaces. These tools are curved and shaped to match the curves of your teeth. They allow us to remove smaller tartar deposits by carefully scraping them off with a gentle to moderate amount of pressure.

> Polishing

Once all the surfaces are smooth, we will then polish your teeth. Polishing is done using a motorised soft rubber cup. Prophylaxis (short for prophy) paste – a special gritty toothpaste-like material – is scooped up like ice cream into the cup and spun around on the teeth to remove surface stains and leave your teeth beautifully shiny & smooth.

2. Does it hurt to have your teeth cleaned?

Most people find that cleanings are painless, and find the sensations described above do not cause discomfort. Many of our patients tell us they actually enjoy cleanings and love the beautifully smooth feel of their teeth afterwards! If the experience is less pleasant, this can be due to a variety of factors: exposed dentine or root surface (not dangerous, but can make cleanings a little sensitive), or infected gum tissues.

In case you may have had sensitive cleaning experiences in the past, you could choose to be numbed beforehand. For cleaning under local anaesthetic, we usually like to carry out the treatment in 2 visits: as dentists, we don’t like numbing both sides of the mouth at the same time, as people may accidentally bite their tongue before the numbness has worn off. If you find the scaling a bit uncomfortable because the gum tissues (rather than the teeth themselves) are sensitive, topical numbing gels can also be used.

Keywords: Prophylaxis, Tartar, Teeth,

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