The psychology of habits and oral hygiene

interdental cleaningFitting interdental cleaning into patients’ lifestyles is the key to forming good habits, Barry Oulton says.

As dental professionals will know, interdental cleaning is necessary in order to ensure that bacterial build-up is kept to a minimum. The key to helping patients remember to clean interdentally is to help the behaviour to become a habit and part of a routine.

But how do people form habits? And why do patients routinely ignore oral health advice about interdental cleaning, even after you tell them it’s necessary?

Dr Barry Oulton sets out to answer these questions and more in his session ‘Wisdom of oral hygiene’ at the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy’s (BSDHT) Oral Health Conference 2019 (OHC).

The first step towards overcoming the struggle

Habit formation is a part of human psychology and it impacts everyday life more than you would imagine. The brain is wired in such a way that all of us perform habitual actions on a daily basis without even realising. But how can dental professionals harness this unique behaviour to enhance oral health care?

Dr Oulton says: ‘All dental health educators, whether that’s dentists, dental hygienists, dental therapists or dental nurses will know the struggle it takes to get patients to listen to their advice regarding interdental cleaning. In my session I really want to delve into the psychology behind habit formation so that we can begin to understand why this challenge persists and think of new ways to overcome it.

‘The first part of my lecture will focus on habits and how these are formed. Habits are effectively short-cuts that our minds create when we perform an action repeatedly. They require a trigger, however, and this is important to establish otherwise a habit won’t stick. For example, if you are a driver it’s likely that you automatically put on your seatbelt without even thinking about it. The trigger for this action will be getting into your car.

‘So how can we apply this to interdental cleaning? Although the ideal would be to have patients interdentally cleaning when they brush twice a day, with the hectic nature of modern lifestyles this is unlikely to be achievable for everyone. If we aim to get patients interdentally cleaning at least once per day, then we can no longer use tooth brushing as the trigger, as half the time they are performing this action (assuming they brush the recommended twice a day) they are not interdentally cleaning, and this means that the habit won’t form.’

A drastic change

‘What I really want to explore with delegates visiting my session at the OHC is how to find opportunities to fit interdental cleaning into people’s schedules so that this habit formation can take place. When a habit is formed, the part of the brain we use to perform the activity shifts. This is the real goal, because when this occurs it ensures that the habit is going to last.

‘I will be sharing my top tricks and tips with delegates, some of which have been very effective. Even small changes can make a big difference and I’ve had many patients who are noticeably being more careful and taking the time to perform interdental cleaning once we have explored their schedules and found a way to identify an effective trigger.’

An exciting educational opportunity for all

Dr Barry Oulton’s session, sponsored by Wisdom Toothbrushes, is just one lecture in a highly varied programme taking place over the two days at the OHC. Alongside the plenary programme, the BSDHT has ensured that there is a huge variety of parallel sessions for delegates to attend, opening up the event for a more customised way of learning so that people can focus on the topics they think will be best for them.

Dr Barry Oulton says: ‘I’m really looking forward to presenting my session at the OHC this year. Habit formation is a fascinating topic, and I believe that by understanding it more, dental hygienists and dental therapists will be able to use this human behaviour to their advantage, improving oral health for all.’

Alongside these brilliant educational opportunities, the OHC 2019 is also an excellent event for networking, catching up with old friends and learning more from some of the top manufacturers in the industry throughout the exhibition.

You can find out more about the OHC and register your place by visiting the BSDHT website:

For more information about the BSDHT, please visit, call 01788 575050 or email [email protected].

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