As dentists obviously we’re proud of our handiwork. And that’s why the jokes about bad ‘British Teeth’ can be a little trying. From Austin Powers to the Simpson’s ‘Big Book of British Smiles’, this myth has become ingrained in pop culture.
But now at least we’ve got some new evidence to show where Brits really stand on brushing.
This World Oral Health Day we shared a huge global poll on oral health. Pollsters at Yougov tested people in 12 nations across five continents on what constitutes good oral health, and the key question on whether they actually followed the guidance. It’s what our friends at FDI dubbed the difference between ‘Knowing Mouth Smart’ and ‘Living Mouth Smart’.
First thing, it’s not all good news.
It seems Brits know the risk but are lagging behind other nations when it comes to making the right choices to maintain healthy teeth and gums.
The UK ranks 3rd on awareness on the steps to ensure good oral health, behind just Canada and New Zealand, but 6th on actually taking action – behind Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Poland.
Seventy-eight percent of UK respondents identified the need to seek help from a dentist when recognising signs of poor oral health like bleeding gums, yet only 41% said they would seek advice. Three out of four recognised the need to avoid excessive amounts of sugar – but only half said they are actually trying to cut down.
And then there’s confusion over what actually constitutes best practice.
Almost one third of Brits thought it is important to brush teeth straight after every main meal. We’d recommend patients waiting at least 30 minutes after eating to brush their teeth to avoid weakening tooth enamel. Nearly half of people say they rinse their mouth out with water after brushing their teeth. Again, rinsing can actually remove the fluoride delivered during brushing.
But then there’s the good news.
This poll once again confirms that Brits are taking better care of their teeth than our American cousins.
Only 40% of US respondents say they avoid sugar (compared to 53% of Brits), 51% of American respondents say they brush for two minutes twice a day (compared to 64% of Brits), and only 49% see a dentist every year (compared to 66% of Brits). The US ranks 9th for awareness on how to maintain good oral health, and 10th for taking action.
In 2015 a Harvard-University of London study, the first ever systematic comparison of British and American smiles, concluded that US citizens don’t have better teeth – in fact they were likely to be sporting a few more gaps. Today the average American is missing 7.31 teeth, significantly higher than the British figure of 6.97, but in Britain, while it’s older generations that usually have the worst teeth, stateside those most likely to have no teeth are working-age adults.
Together health data and public attitudes research are showing us the difference health systems and strong public awareness can make.
So yes, we need to do more, but we can take some pride in the fact British dentistry continues to provide better quality comprehensive care for the many, not just Hollywood smiles for the few.
Britain is not living up to the Austin Powers stereotype, but there is no room for complacency when it comes to oral health.
The public seem to know the risks, but don’t seem to be changing their behaviour. And without a step change in attitudes a preventable disease will continue to blight the lives of millions and put huge pressure on our NHS.
We all know from experience that teeth and gums can’t be an afterthought. We need the public to take ownership of their oral health, and for the authorities to really start hammering these messages home.
Chair, Principal Executive Committee
Top tips on brushing
Check out our top tips and myth busters on tooth brushing for your patients, from our Health and Science Advisor, Professor Damien Walmsley.