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Demystifying Your Dentist’s Toolkit

Kelsey Tyler

I don’t count myself among the 36 percent of people who experience dental anxiety, but I confess my heart rate increases each time I see that little silver tray of tiny ice picks awaiting me in the dentist’s office — not to mention the tubes, whirring noises and smells. 

Since regular teeth cleanings and care are essential, it’s important to demystify common dental instruments in order to understand what’s going into your mouth and what your dentist is doing the next time you’re in the exam chair.

“None of these instruments should cause pain,” says Whitney Rose DiFoggio, a registered dental hygienist in Chicago. “If for some reason you are feeling discomfort, always let the dental clinician know.”

Before your next dental appointment, empower yourself with some basic knowledge about the tools of the trade. Here’s a rundown of the equipment you’ll likely encounter at the dentist’s office during a standard cleaning or procedure.

Sickle probe

A skinny metal hand instrument with a hook, or sickle, at the end. It’s sometimes called an “explorer” because it is commonly used to explore your teeth for any “sticky” spots potentially indicating cavities. It can also be used to help detect tartar (plaque that has hardened) below the gumline.

Periodontal probe

This metal hand instrument has a miniature ruler on the end. It’s used to check the health of the gingiva (your gums, bone and surrounding gum tissue) by measuring the space between the gums and the teeth in millimeters.


A roughly quarter-sized mirror at the end of a long handle. This allows the dentist to get a good look at all sides and surfaces of your teeth. 

Ultrasonic scaler

An ultrasonic scaler is a handheld device that’s connected to a water line. The combination of high pressurized water and ultrasonic vibrations efficiently removes plaque, tartar and stains from teeth. This scaler also uses water to wash out and remove debris from below the gums.

Hand scaler

Dental pros use this metal instrument, which comes in different shapes and sizes, to scrape the plaque and tartar from teeth. It is often used after the ultrasonic scaler to reach into small crevices and thoroughly clean each surface of each tooth.

Prophy angle

A prophy angle is a motorized toothbrush used to polish the teeth during a cleaning. Instead of bristles, the end consists of a small rubber cup that uses a rotating motion to polish the teeth with an abrasive toothpaste. 

“With kids, we call it the ‘superhero toothbrush’ because it removes plaque and stains from your teeth just like a superhero,” DiFoggio says.

Air and water syringe

This syringe sprays either water or air into your mouth like a squirt gun. The water helps remove debris from your mouth and the air helps dry the teeth so the clinician can have a clear view of your teeth without saliva getting in the way.

Saliva ejector

The saliva ejector is that bendable plastic suction tube that remains in your mouth throughout a dental appointment to remove excess saliva or water that builds up in your mouth. 


Drills are used to remove decayed parts of the teeth prior to filling cavities or to smooth the surface of a tooth before applying a crown or veneer. 


In recent years, dental lasers have been used for a variety of purposes in dentistry.  The plus side for patients is that lasers tend to be less invasive (and less unnerving) than some traditional tools.

“Lasers can quietly clean out some cavities without numbing, and they can help treat mouth tissue lesions and gum disease,” says Thomas McCarthy, a dentist in Milwaukee. “They offer benefits that patients appreciate, but they’re not capable of completely replacing traditional handpieces.”


Finally, you can always use distraction to keep your mind off your mouth while you’re at the dentist. 

“The dental profession is acutely aware of the ‘bother/scare’ aspects of what we do,” McCarthy says. “Headphones, TV screens and sedation frequently help patients who fear going to the dentist.”

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