What Is Tooth Polishing?

Tooth polishing is a common procedure that removes the outermost layer of plaque. It also buffs away superficial tooth stains caused by foods and beverages like coffee, tea, red wine, or smoking.


The abrasive materials used for polishing include pumice, calcium carbonate, perlite, aluminum silicate and zirconium silicate. The abrasives are finely ground for minimal damage to the teeth and periodontal structures.


While most patients understand the benefits of teeth polishing (abrasion leads to smoother tooth surfaces, which are less hospitable to plaque and tartar), many don’t realize just how much abrasiveness is involved. During routine cleanings, the dental hygienist will buff away loose and calcified plaque and surface stains with a rubber cup coated in prophy paste, a special polishing mixture of abrasives. This is usually done last in a cleaning appointment, right after your hygienist scales the bulk of the soft biofilm with their instrument.

Tooth abrasion is necessary to remove superficial plaque, calculus and stains from the teeth but should be kept to a minimum. Too much abrasion can damage the tooth enamel, leaving the inner layers exposed to bacteria and more vulnerable to recolonization. Traditionally, the abrasiveness of the polishing mixture was lowered by switching from coarse to finer abrasives. Currently, the abrasive particles used in prophylaxis paste are pumice, calcium carbonate, flour of pumice, perlite and zirconium silicate.

In addition to reducing the abrasiveness of tooth polishing, newer techniques are being explored that may reduce aerosols and bacterial contamination. These new methods also may reduce the stress and discomfort experienced by the patient. Nevertheless, the rubber cup polishing method is still very popular with dental professionals because it is quick and effective and can be performed on most patients.


Tooth polishing helps to remove stains that regular brushing may not. Many patients find that their teeth are much lighter and brighter after having their teeth polished. They also enjoy the smooth, slick feeling that tooth polishing leaves behind.

Tooth stains can be broadly classified into two types – endogenous and exogenous stains. Endogenous stains are those that can be attributed to developmental, drug induced, or enamel hypoplasia related factors while exogenous stains occur as a result of food consumption or poor oral hygiene. Extrinsic stains are more readily removed by scaling and polishing than intrinsic stains.

Stains on the surface of your teeth can easily be removed by your dental hygienist with a small, soft rubber cup and polishing paste. More severe stains, such as brown or black stains caused by the consumption of pigmented foods and beverages or from smoking/tobacco use are more challenging to remove and may require additional treatments such as in-office whitening.

Stains can also be removed by selective polishing, a process in which your dental professional uses a jet of air and water in combination with glycine or sodium bicarbonate to remove bacteria from the exposed root surfaces of your teeth. This type of polishing is only performed when there is a valid therapeutic reason to do so and should be limited to the areas of your teeth that are visibly discolored.


Some sensitivity is normal after a dental cleaning and typically resolves within a few days. It can be caused by the removal of plaque and tartar that may expose sensitive dentin underneath. In addition, hot and cold foods and drinks can also trigger sensitivity. If sensitivity is persistent or severe, it’s important to consult with your dentist to rule out any underlying issues.

Tooth polishing is a therapeutic procedure that is used to address specific areas of the mouth. It is not a routine procedure and can only be performed when there is a justified therapeutic need such as removing extrinsic stains or as an adjunct to scaling and oral debridement. It is important to note that tooth polishing cannot remove endogenous stains, which are inside the teeth and include dentin and cementum. Therefore, if a patient has an area of exposed cementum or dentin due to receding gums it should be addressed prior to polishing.

Persistent sensitivity can be a sign of a number of oral health conditions including enamel erosion, gum disease or exposed tooth roots. Understanding the causes of sensitivity, practicing effective management techniques and maintaining open communication with your dental professional can help to reduce discomfort and promote healthy smiles.

Oral Hygiene

After teeth cleaning, polishing removes surface stains on the teeth. This step can be particularly effective in removing stains from coffee, tea, red wine, and tobacco. However, it cannot remove internal stains or endogenous stains that occur due to developmental or drug-induced enamel hypoplasia.

Polishing can also be used to smooth the surface of the teeth and promote good oral hygiene. This makes it easier for the patient to brush and floss, reducing plaque accumulation. In addition, xylitol-based polishers help stimulate saliva production and alleviate dry mouth.

Dental hygienists use different types of prophy pastes to polish the teeth, including fine, medium, and coarse grit. Coarse prophy pastes are typically more effective at removing superficial stains, but they can also microscopically roughen and scratch the tooth surface. This can lead to stains in the future.

The type of polishing technique used is determined by the individual hygienist and based on patient needs and comfort. Regardless of the method, it is critical that the hygienist is skilled in the process and takes the necessary precautions to avoid damaging the tooth’s structure.

Tooth polishing is a valuable component of the dental care routine, but it should not be considered a replacement for daily brushing and flossing. Teeth polishing should be part of a comprehensive dental health program, along with regular dental checkups and professional cleanings.