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Scaling and Polishing: All you need to know

Scaling and polishing are two medical terms that are often used together because they represent processes that are similar. Both are processes that involve removing stains and plaque accumulated on the teeth; those which regular brushing and flossing cannot remove.
Professionally, teeth cleaning or dental cleaning is called Prophylaxis (or Prophy). Prophylaxis is a word of Greek origin and means to prevent beforehand, which is taken in this context as preventing gum disease.


Scaling is a dental process that is used to remove plaque, calculus and tartar found on the teeth of an individual. These plaque accumulate over time up to the point where regular teeth cleaning and flossing fails to remove them.
Plaque are substances that form on the teeth naturally. They adhere to the surface of the teeth, and are easy to remove by brushing and flossing.
However, if plaque is left for a long time on the teeth without brushing them away, they absorb certain mineral substances (calcium and phosphorus) in the saliva and transform into a hard substance known as calculus or tartar.
If the calculus is left on the teeth and not brushed away properly, new plaque starts forming on it, and the process repeats itself. It build up to a point at which it is impossible to remove by ordinary brushing and flossing. Hence, the need for scaling.


Polishing goes hand in hand with scaling. It’s usually done after the scaling process to remove remnant stains and smoothen and make the tooth/teeth shining, in order to make it hard for plaque and stains to attach to the tooth surface.

Why and when should I go for teeth scaling and polishing?

It is necessary to go for dental cleaning once in a while in order to prevent tooth decay and gum disease.
Food is first taken in the mouth before being passed to other parts of the body, so it is very easy for infections to spread from the mouth to other parts of the body. Which is why it is necessary to maintain good oral health and hygiene.

It is recommended that an individual goes for dental scaling and polishing at least once every six months. This may vary based on the oral condition of an individual.
Also, when you notice your teeth starts getting darker or more yellowish, that is a distinct signal for you that it’s time to visit the dental clinic.

How Scaling and Polishing are done

Dental scaling and polishing are done with a variety of instruments in a progression: An ultrasonic instrument, then some Fine Hand tools and finally some Fluoride.
These instruments are used by the dentist gently in order to avoid causing harm the teeth. These instruments and the way they are used are described below.

Scaling-and-Root-Planing-2Ultrasonic instrument

ultrasonic device

The first tool used in scaling is an ultrasonic instrument which uses tickling vibrations to knock larger pieces of tartar/calculus 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. This may seem louder than it actually is because the sound may get amplified inside your head, the same effect you get when you put an electric toothbrush into your mouth.

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. If you notice that the sensations are too strong or ticklish, make sure to inform the dentist attending to you so that they can adjust the setting appropriately on the device or modify the pressure applied.

With larger deposits that have hardened on, it can take some time to remove these. So your first dental cleaning may take longer than future cleanings. It’s just like not cleaning a house for six months. Compare that to cleaning it every week. The six-month job is going to take longer than doing smaller weekly jobs.

Fine Hand Tools

Once the larger pieces of tartar are gone, the dentist will switch to finer hand tools (called scalers and curettes in dental jargons) to remove smaller deposits and smoothen the tooth surfaces. These tools are curved and shaped to match the curves of the teeth. They allow smaller tartar deposits to be removed by carefully scraping them off with a gentle to moderate amount of pressure.


Once all the surfaces are smooth, the dentist starts polishing your teeth. Polishing is done using a slow speed handpiece with a soft rubber cup that spins on the end. Prophylaxis (short for prophy) paste — special gritty toothpaste-like material –- is scooped up like ice cream into the cup and spun around on the teeth to make them shiny smooth.


Your dentist may also apply fluoride. This is the final, and my favorite part of the dental cleaning! Fluoride comes in many different flavours such as chocolate, mint, strawberry, cherry, watermelon, pina and can be mixed and matched just like ice cream at a parlour for a great taste sensation! Make no mistake though, this in-office fluoride treatment is meant for topical use only on the surfaces of the teeth and swallowing excessive amounts can give a person a tummy ache as it is not meant to be ingested.

Fluoride foam or gel is then placed into small, flexible foam trays and placed over the teeth for 30
seconds. Afterwards the patient is directed to spit as much out as possible into a saliva ejector. 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.

Is it going to be painful?

Most people find that cleanings are painless, and find the sensations described above – tickling vibrations, the cooling mist of water, and the feeling of pressure during “scraping” – do not cause discomfort. A lot of people even report that they enjoy cleanings and the lovely smooth feel of their teeth afterwards! There may be odd sensations, but many people don’t
mind as they only last a nanosecond.

Be sure to let your dentist know if you find things are getting too uncomfortable for your liking.
They can recommend various options to make the cleaning more enjoyable. Painful cleaning experiences can be caused by a number of things: a rough dentist, exposed dentine (not dangerous, but can make cleanings unpleasant), or sore gum tissues.

In case you may have had painful cleaning experiences in the past, switching to a gentle
dentist and perhaps a spot of nitrous oxide can often make all the difference. You could also choose to be numbed. If you find the scaling a bituncomfortable because the gum tissues (rather than the teeth themselves) are sensitive, topical numbing gels can be used.

The above are the procedures involved in Scaling and Polishing. So next time you’re going to visit your dentist, or if it would be your first time, brace yourself up with the information in this article.

Do you need an appointment with the dentist? Do you wish to go for a scaling and polishing session? Book an appointment with our team of world-class dentists here in Nigeria here.

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