The Surprising Teeth Cleaning Tool Dentists Don’t Want Their Patients Using

Toothpicks have become the ubiquitous after-meal tooth-cleaner, but what’s their point in your oral maintenance routine?

You might be surprised to learn that dentists actually don’t recommend using toothpicks to clean your teeth. So, how did they become so popular in restaurants and practically a fashion statement? It all began in Boston in the 1860s.

While working in Brazil, Charles Forster noticed that the natives had impeccably clean and healthy looking teeth. They used small sticks to clean in between their teeth after meals. Forster decided to mass produce the toothpick and introduce it to Americans. Forster came up with a brilliant marketing plan to gain interest in his new product. He would try to sell toothpicks to the local stores and when he found no interest, he left. He then hired some young people to go into the same stores and ask for toothpicks and then leave when none could be provided. Forster then returned to the store to sell the toothpicks to the much more interested buyer. To reinforce the decision to buy toothpicks, the young people returned to the store to buy them, which they then returned to Forster to be resold.

Forster used this same ploy in local restaurants; hiring Harvard men to eat (on Forster’s dime) at the fancy restaurants and then request a toothpick after their meal. When the toothpicks could not be provided, the students made a scene and vowed never to return. Forster’s business began to boom. Later on, toothpicks became a universal symbol (even being used by women) of contentment and a good meal.

Union Oyster House was one of the first places restaurants to purchase toothpicks after Charles Forster’s schemes. (Source:

In modern times, toothpicks have become so much more than just a way to clean your teeth after a meal. Think about this, if you go to buy toothpicks at the grocery store, where do you look? Not by the toothbrushes and toothpaste. Toothpicks are most commonly found in the baking aisle as one of their modern uses is to make sure that the cake or brownies being baked are fully cooked. Toothpicks are also now used to hold sandwiches together, spear olives in a martini and pick up hors d’oeuvres at fancy parties or events.

Toothpicks were also used as inspiration for an invention. It became widely publicized in women’s magazines that toothpicks could be wrapped in a small sheet of cotton and then used to clean out a baby’s ears and nose. This trend led to the invention of Q-tips.

While toothpicks have cleaned the teeth of people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, our technology for teeth cleaning has significantly advanced. Many dentists take issue with toothpicks because they can cause damage to teeth and to your gums. Dentists even remark that it’s easy to identify a toothpick user by the look of their teeth when they come in for a dental cleaning because there are scratches on the teeth along the gum line.

There are also risks associated with toothpick use. If a small piece of toothpick breaks off it can lodge in your gums or be inhaled into your lungs, causing severe damage. Toothpicks have also been digested and can perforate your intestines causing serious internal harm.

Instead of toothpicks, dentists recommend flossing your teeth at least daily to remove food from in between teeth. You can also use inter-dental cleaners, which are available at any drugstore and can be easily carried around in a purse or pocket. If you have larger spaces in between your teeth, consider a proxy brush, which is a tiny brush that fits in between teeth to get them clean. All of these options are less harmful and more effective at cleaning teeth than toothpicks. If none of these solutions are ideal, be sure to talk to your dentist to find something that works for your lifestyle.

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If you find that food is getting caught in between your teeth after every meal, you may need to talk to your dentist because it could be a sign of shifting teeth, or a filling or crown that does not fit properly and needs to be addressed.

Though toothpicks have become popular for after meals and have a long history of fashion and function, they aren’t really a way to clean teeth. Save those toothpicks for your next cocktail party, but keep them away from your teeth.

About Mark C. Marchbanks, D.D.S.

Dr. Mark Marchbanks has practiced dentistry in Arlington Texas since 1983. He enjoys caring for patients young and old. You can find Dr. Marchbanks on
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