You may have seen the headlines or heard about the number of germs on your toothbrush from news reports. Or you may have seen the MythBusters toothbrush test on TV, where they checked on whether your toilet is contaminating your toothbrush. Researchers in England and the United States have confirmed that your toothbrush is likely home to a number of germs. These can include some really nasty bugs like E. coli and Staph bacteria. But, guess what? Most of those germs are coming directly from you using the toothbrush!
How Germs Get on Your Toothbrush
Germs on your toothbrush come from two main sources:
- Your mouth
- The air in the location the toothbrush is kept
Your mouth is naturally home to thousands of germs and bacteria. You pick these up when you breathe and eat. The naturally occurring germs and bacteria in your mouth are one of the main reasons you need to brush. Some of those bacteria are the very ones that cause tooth decay if they are not removed from your teeth. The second place that your toothbrush gets “dirty” is from where it is stored. Most people store their toothbrushes in the bathroom, which can be a place germs end up floating around in the air. Flushing the toilet can push germs into the air and there are many other activities in the bathroom that can release germs that might eventually end up on your toothbrush.
Can My Toothbrush Make Me Sick?
Here’s the interesting thing. We know there are germs on your toothbrush. We know some of them are germs that can make people sick. But, nobody has really proven that a germ-filled toothbrush will make you sick. When your immune system is healthy, it is pretty good at fighting off the usual germs that tend to end up in your mouth. Your body’s defenses come to the rescue and stop the germs before they make you sick. And since many of the germs that end up on your toothbrush are from your own mouth, they are the same ones your body fights off daily.
Sometimes, with certain medical conditions, there is a risk of reinfection from your toothbrush. If you are diagnosed with strep throat, for example, your doctor may advise you to throw away your old toothbrush after your antibiotics have had time to start working. If your immune system doesn’t work as well as it should because of some type of disease or disorder, that increases the chances that you could become infected or re-infect yourself from using your toothbrush. But for most people, simple steps are all that is needed to keep your toothbrush reasonably clean and safe to use.
Best Ways to Keep Your Toothbrush Clean
The best ways to keep your toothbrush clean are pretty simple and you are probably already doing most or all of them already. These are the toothbrush care recommendations of the American Dental Association:
- Never share a toothbrush with somebody else. The germs their body is used to fighting may not be the one’s your body is used to fighting.
- Rinse your toothbrush with water after using it, then let it air dry. Most people use an upright toothbrush holder (just be sure to clean this regularly).
- Don’t store your toothbrush in a closed container where it doesn’t dry out, as this leads to more rapid growth of microorganisms.
- Replace your toothbrush at least 3-4 times each year. This recommendation is more about making sure your toothbrush continues to do an effective job at cleaning your teeth, but it will also help to reset the amount of germs living on the brush.
Additional Toothbrush Care Tips from Some Health Experts
The University of Arkansas Medical Center adds a few additional recommendations:
- Wash your hands before and after brushing/flossing to prevent spreading germs.
- Replace your toothbrush after a cold or other illness
- Use two toothbrushes and alternate so that each brush has a chance to dry completely before it is used again.
- Don’t share a toothpaste tube with someone who is sick.
What you shouldn’t do is microwave or drop your toothbrush in boiling water. These methods might be great at killing germs, but they also ruin the toothbrush.
What about Sanitizing My Toothbrush?
While the ADA doesn’t recommend that you do anything beyond the steps above. There is some evidence that a few additional steps could decrease the number of microorganisms living on your toothbrush. However, these steps haven’t been proven to reduce your chances of getting sick.
- Replace your toothbrush more often.
- Rinse your toothbrush in antibacterial mouthwash before and/or after brushing. However, the Centers for Disease Control warns that if the same solution is used by multiple people, this could actually lead to cross-contamination and be more harmful than helpful to staying healthy.
- Use a toothbrush sanitizer. These can kill a good number of the microorganisms on your toothbrush, but they are not proven to completely wipe out (sterilize) your toothbrush.
The bad news in all of this is that there are germs everywhere. The good news is that most of these germs won’t actually make you sick. So, you probably don’t need to change your toothbrush care habits too much, if at all. For most people, there is very little chance of ever getting sick from their own toothbrush.