What to expect during your scaling and polishing procedure?

Dental cleanings involve removing plaque (soft, sticky, bacteria infested film) and tartar (calculus) deposits that have built up on the teeth over time. This chalky substance will eventually build up over time, like limescale in a pipe or kettle. Usually it is tooth coloured and can easily be mistaken as part of the teeth, but it also can vary from brown to black in colour.

If the scale, or calculus (tartar, as dentists like to call it) is allowed to accumulate on the teeth it will unfortunately provide the right conditions for bacteria to thrive next to the gums. The purpose of the cleaning and polishing is basically to leave the surfaces of the teeth clean and smooth so that bacteria are unable to stick to them and you have a better chance of keeping the teeth clean during your regular home care.

The professional cleaning of teeth is sometimes referred to as prophylaxis (or prophy for short). It’s a Greek word which means “to prevent beforehand” – in this case, it helps prevent gum disease.

Scaling and Polishing

How are dental cleanings done?

The dentist/dental hygienist uses specialized instruments to gently remove these deposits without harming the teeth. The instruments which may be used during your cleaning, and what they feel like, are described below.

Ultrasonic instrument

Commonly used first is an ultrasonic instrument which uses tickling vibrations to knock larger pieces of tartar loose. It also sprays a cooling mist of water while it works to wash away debris and keep the area at a proper temperature. The device typically emits a humming or high pitched whistling sound. The ultrasonic instrument tips are curved and rounded and are always kept in motion around the teeth. They are by no means sharp since their purpose is to knock tartar loose and not to cut into the teeth. It is best to inform the operator if the sensations are too strong or ticklish so that they can adjust the setting appropriately on the device or modify the pressure applied.

Fine hand tools

Once the larger pieces of tartar are gone, the dental worker will switch to finer hand tools (called scalers and curettes in dental-speak) to remove smaller deposits and smoothen the tooth surfaces.


They may also apply fluoride. Fluoride gel is placed on the teeth, where required. Afterwards the patient is directed to spit as much out as possible into the spitoon. The fluoride helps to strengthen the teeth since the acids from bacteria in dental tartar and plaque will have weakened the surfaces. It is best not to eat, drink or rinse for 30 minutes after the fluoride has been applied.


Polishing is done using a slow speed handpiece with a soft rubber cup that spins on the end. Prophylaxis paste – a special gritty toothpaste-like material is spun around on the teeth to make them shiny smooth.


Following the cleaning, the dentist/dental hygienist will highlight areas that you may be missing or which require more attention. You will then be given advice and a demonstration on how best to maintain your gum health. This will include flossing and if required other cleaning aids. Any advice given to you will be evidence based and proven to help improve and maintain your gum health.

dental hygienist for scaling & polishing

How often should I visit my dental hygienist for scaling & polishing?

Ideally you should be seeing your dentist and dental hygienist every 6 months for an examination and a scale & polish. However in some cases such as active periodontal disease, bone loss, bleeding gums, smokers, certain health conditions and advanced dental treatments you may be required to visit your dental hygienist more frequently for optimum care. You will be advised of this at the end of your appointment.

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