Cambrian: Slice of Life

How to use a ‘dental irrigator’ to clean your teeth: Step one, put on a poncho

Kathe Tanner
Kathe Tanner

Editor’s note: This column ran first in the Aug. 18, 2005, issue of The Cambrian.

Our dentist told us for years that, if we were dedicated about using a “dental irrigator,” we might keep our teeth a little longer.

(Did you ever notice that medical types always spout cryptic equations like that? For instance, my doctor tells me if I exercise more, I’ll live longer. So, check this with me: By exercising for weeks and months now, when I feel relatively good, I might add more hours to the end of my life when I’m feeling crummy. I’m bad at math, but there’s something wacky about those calculations.)

Anyhow, if a dental irrigator sounds like I’m hooking my mouth up to a power washer, you’re not too far off.

Water blended with a bit of bleach flows from a plastic reservoir through a pump to a tube that has a spray nozzle on the end. The resulting strong stream of water should buff each tooth clean, massage your gums and blast every little leftover piece of spinach or Snickers bar from between your molars.

It’s like trying to chew gum and gargle at the same time.

And have you tasted Clorox lately?

To learn how to use our dental irrigator — which we nicknamed Pik — I opened the manual.

Now I know better than to do that, having been totally baffled in what appears to be several languages by the manuals for a variety of electronic taskmasters, from a desktop computer and two iPads to several aging iPods, an iPhone and numerous digital cameras, none of which I’ve even begun to understand. (No, I don’t want Alexa. Siri’s bad enough, thank you.)

Even my new $89 microwave is smarter than I am.

Of course, the manuals just make things worse.

So, there I was with Pik and absolutely no idea how to use it.

I stood at the sink and pondered. I’m supposed to take something that could launch a small satellite, put the device into my mouth and turn it on.


I looked up at my reflection in the mirror, and my face reminded me of that wonderful old ad for thermometers. You remember — a darling baby with a horrified expression and the headline, “You’re going to put that thermometer WHERE?”

I sighed, and went back to where Pik’s manual showed the little changeable tip attached to the handle. But the booklet never showed exactly how I was supposed to connect them. After several tries — during which I chased the tip around the bathroom like a manic grasshopper playing handball — I finally figured out it was a push-me, pull-me operation and got the diabolical devices connected.

The manual also shows a sliding bar that controls the water’s velocity, but didn’t explain that, when you slide the bar while Pik is pumping water into your mouth, the pressure changes instantly from tickle to sandblast.

It’s like getting acupuncture from the inside out.

The manual also forgot to mention how tightly or loosely I should keep my lips closed once I turned on the spray.

In my usual mode, I learned the hard way.

Using Pik with my mouth sort of open, I managed to spray down the sink, the mirror, the shower, the tub, the windows and the flower basket in the next room.

With my mouth slammed shut (a position with which I’m basically unfamiliar anyway), I almost drowned.

Finally, I learned the half-and-half lip-pursing move that is the requisite balance between blast and glub. Some water has to dribble and drip out of your mouth as Pik is blasting more in.

It is not a Kodak moment.

Having semi-mastered the routine, here’s some advice:

1) Don’t wear nice clothes while you’re Pik-ing.

2) Don’t try to talk, either.

3) Laughing can be purely hazardous.

4) Clorox water tastes like old socks.

5) Be careful where you aim. Do not, repeat, not point the super sprayer at the back of your throat, especially right after breakfast.

6) And don’t bother with the manual.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

Kathe Tanner has been writing about the people and places of SLO County’s North Coast since 1981, first as a columnist and then also as a reporter. Her career has included stints as a bakery owner, public relations director, radio host, trail guide and jewelry designer She has been a resident of Cambria for more than four decades, and if it’s happening in town, Kathe knows about it.