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Dentists can be so cruel.

Now, we're not referring to pain, though goodness knows the shots, awkward positions and drilling can be unpleasant.

We're talking about psychological distress brought on by guilt -- dentists' offices often sport wall posters declaring, "You don't have to brush all your teeth -- just the ones you want to keep."

It seems that no matter how much you brush or floss your teeth, the dentist or hygienist can always find more plaque to scrape away. And if you should get a cavity or need root canal work, you'll often be made to feel that it's somehow your fault for poor dental hygiene.

In defense of dental professionals, though, lots of folks don't do such a hot job cleaning their teeth. Less than 20 percent of the population flosses every day. Many people do not know how to brush correctly.

It is still true that keeping teeth clean is the best defense against gum disease, but Americans love fast and easy solutions to tough problems. So manufacturers of mouthwashes and toothpastes are supplying us with products touted to banish plaque and tartar with the implied promise they will prevent gingivitis and periodontal disease.

Only one mouthwash (Peridex) has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as effective against plaque and gingivitis. It is available only by prescription.

The only over-the-counter mouthwash that has earned the American Dental Association's "seal of acceptance" is the old standby, Listerine.

Although the manufacturers would like to imply that one brand of toothbrush or dental floss excels over another, there isn't much practical difference. A new toothbrush works better than one that is worn out, but for both brushes and floss, the key element is proper and regular use.

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