What is a Dental Prophylaxis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 15 February 2019
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A dental prophylaxis is a dental procedure which is performed with the goal of reducing the risk of gum and tooth disease. Also known simply as a prophylaxis or prophy, this procedure is recommended at intervals which can vary from six months to two years, depending on a patient's history. It is performed by a dentist or licensed dental hygienist who has received specialized training in tooth care.

In a dental prophylaxis, the technician performs both scaling and polishing. During the scaling process, tools are used to remove tartar, plaque, and stains from the teeth, including below the gum line. The polishing process smooths the teeth to remove rough spots which might otherwise attract bacteria. Some dentists also offer tooth sealant services, which are designed to prevent decay of the teeth.

The most important part of a dental prophylaxis involves cleaning below the gumline. People who floss and brush their teeth regularly can usually keep their teeth relatively healthy above the gums. Below the gums, however, it is difficult for tools like toothbrushes to reach, and dental calculus can build up. This exposes the patient to the risk of gum disease and dental decay.


During a dental prophylaxis, the care provider will also inspect the teeth and jaw for any obvious signs of ill health. This inspection may reveal underlying medical issues such as receding gums, erupting wisdom teeth, or dental cavities which will require treatment. Early identification of dental problems can help people deal with them before they become serious.

A dentist can make recommendations about the frequency of prophylaxis appointments on the basis of a patient's history and overall oral health. Some patients may benefit from more frequent appointments, while others may need a thorough tooth cleaning less frequently. While tooth cleanings are often used as an excuse to get patients in for a checkup, patients can book checkups, including dental X-rays, without needing a dental prophylaxis.

Humans are not the only species who benefit from dental prophylaxis. Pets and working animals such as cats, dogs, horses, and cattle also require dental care, which can be provided by a veterinarian. Cats and dogs in particular are prone to developing gum and tooth disease, including painful conditions such as feline oral resorptive lesions. Regular dental prophylaxis can prevent disease and keep animals more comfortable.


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Post 7

My dentist took about 30 seconds to scale my teeth then told me to return in two weeks for polishing and to fill a cavity. Is this appropriate?

Post 6

Trust and believe, it is important to start and maintain these cleanings as often as required. They will save one's teeth and gums. One will really appreciate all this care when one reaches, say 50ish? I value the cleanings more than the cosmetics. There's nothing like your own, natural teeth.

Post 5

@anon810444-- I have always had my teeth scaled before being polished, so was not aware that some hygienists polished them first.

I really don't like the scaling process but I know that is what really removes the tartar and plaque. I don't mind the polishing though, and love how soft and clean my teeth feel when they are done.

I am a creature of habit, and always choose a mint or cinnamon flavor when they polish.

Post 4

@andee-- My husband has the same issue with his teeth and has to be seen more often than most people. I only have to go about once a year as the plaque and tartar doesn't build up very fast on my teeth.

Both of us brush more than once a day and floss every day, but some people just get this build-up faster than others.

I have seen the same dentist for 25 years and he has very low turnover when it comes to his help. This means I have also seen the same hygienist for a number of years. When the hygienist is done cleaning my teeth, the dentist always comes in to check them and make sure my teeth look OK.

Post 3

I am one of those people who quickly develops plaque on my teeth. While most people can get by with a visit every 6 months, I have to go every 3 months to stay on top of it.

While I don't really like going to see the dentist or the hygienist, I love how clean my teeth feel when they are done. I can really tell after about 8-10 weeks that it is getting close for another cleaning.

Post 2

There was a period of time when I didn't have dental insurance, so didn't go to the dentist for several years. When I finally did go for a cleaning, they could not get it all done in one visit.

It took two separate visits to get my teeth cleaned, and they were pretty sore for a couple of days. Now that I have insurance, I don't like to put this off.

It is so much easier to go for my 6 month regular check up than it is to let the plaque and tartar get really bad. I have always said I would never want to be a dental hygienist, but I am sure glad there are people who enjoy it and are good at it.

Post 1

How come some dental hygienists polish before doing the scaling?

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