The persistent and universal nature of oral health inequalities presents a significant challenge to oral health policy makers. Inequalities in oral health mirror those in general health. The universal social gradient in both general and oral health highlights the underlying influence of psychosocial, economic, environmental and political determinants. The dominant preventive approach in dentistry, i.e. narrowly focusing on changing the behaviours of high-risk individuals, has failed to effectively reduce oral health inequalities, and may indeed have increased the oral health equity gap. A conceptual shift is needed away from this biomedical/behavioural 'downstream' approach, to one addressing the 'upstream' underlying social determinants of population oral health. Failure to change our preventive approach is a dereliction of ethical and scientific integrity. A range of complementary public health actions may be implemented at local, national and international levels to promote sustainable oral health improvements and reduce inequalities. The aim of this article is to stimulate discussion and debate on the future development of oral health improvement strategies.