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Is Flossing a Waste of Time?

Updated on May 11, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

He Feels Different After Flossing

"He feels different after flossing." Illustration from a  children's book by Henrik Hovland.
"He feels different after flossing." Illustration from a children's book by Henrik Hovland. | Source

The One-Minute Flossing Technique

Whenever I visit my dentist and oral hygienist they say the same thing. Regular flossing is essential for dental health. Brushing alone will not remove all the food debris and bacterial film build-up from your teeth. The message is repeated in the media and by professional dental organizations. Even children’s books (see illustration above) subliminally remind us that using dental floss is normal and to be encouraged.

I try to be a good patient and watch carefully as my dentist demonstrates the simple flossing technique. It’s easy to learn and easy to complete; just one minute is all it takes, he says. Brush your teeth after eating, and complete the process by manipulating dental floss around the teeth to remove all traces of food. The straightforward steps are as follows.

How to Use Dental Floss
1. Brush your teeth first and then floss.
2. Take a piece of dental floss 12-15 inches long.
3. Wind the ends around your two index fingers, but not too tightly.
4. Manipulate the middle part of the floss between each tooth.
5. It should take less than a minute to complete both upper and lower teeth.
Just one minute of your time, twice a day can improve your dental health.

How to Floss Your Teeth

Prevention is the secret to a happy dental life and long term health. Brushing is great but it doesn't remove all the bacterial film between your teeth. Flossing is the key to complete what brushing starts.

— Dr. Carlos Meulener, (DMD, New Jersey, US)

Don’t Feel Guilty About Not Flossing

Until recently, dental associations, national health services, federal and state governments were all on message and spoke with one voice. Yet quietly and with very few people taking notice, the US government recently changed its recommendation about the need to floss teeth regularly.

In 2015, the Associated Press investigated what (if any) evidence there was to back the US government’s established recommendation for regular flossing. They made requests to the US Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture under the Freedom of Information Act. Their conclusion was withering. AP said that the evidence for flossing was "weak, very unreliable,” of "very low" quality, and carried "a moderate to large potential for bias."

The main problem was that the few studies that do exist on the effect of flossing on gum disease and dental caries are too small, or lasted for too short a period. For example, one study looked at just one use of dental floss in 25 people. Another study assessing patient compliance lasted only two weeks. The small sample sizes and absence of a control group give these studies insufficient scientific rigor. It is thus inappropriate to extrapolate the results and make deductions from them to apply to the entire population.

How often do you floss?

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US Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The US government issues Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. Within a few months of AP making its request for information, the new plan was issued and the recommendation about the benefits of flossing had disappeared. It appears the federal government has concluded there is insufficient scientific evidence to back the claim that flossing works.

The American Dental Association and the British Dental Association continue to recommend that using dental floss helps maintain good oral health. So, what should you do? Are there (unscientifically proven) benefits associated with flossing?

Is Flossing Your Teeth a Waste of Time?

To Floss or Not to Floss?

Even though there are no long-term studies to prove its effectiveness, the dental community remain convinced that flossing provides tangible benefits. For a start, there is the purely practical benefit of being able to remove that annoying piece of meat (or similar) stuck between your teeth. Then there is the effect it has on making you pay more attention to your dental hygiene. For example, if you notice bleeding when flossing, this will alert you to early signs of gum disease and encourage you to visit your dentist.

Many people find flossing difficult because they lack the manual dexterity to do it effectively. Most people need to be taught how to use dental floss properly and this can take time and patience to learn. Some, like me, are a little lazy and can’t be bothered to floss on a regular basis unless a visit to the hygienist or dentist is imminent.

On my last visit, my hygienist suggested I try a Pro-Sys interdental brush instead of floss. This has the advantage of being much easier to handle than the floss string. It’s a very tiny wire brush that is poked though the gaps between each tooth. I’m pleased with the results so far. It makes my teeth feel clean and fresh. Because the mini brush is so easy to use, I find I’m using it more often than I used dental floss.

To maintain good oral health, the American Dental Association continues to recommend brushing for two minutes twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, cleaning between teeth once a day with an interdental cleaner and regular dental visits advised by your dentist.

— ADA

Interdental Tooth Brushes Replace Dental Floss

Interdental tooth brushes are available in a variety of sizes.
Interdental tooth brushes are available in a variety of sizes. | Source

5 Tips for Healthy Gums

Dentist Dr. Emily Craft from Austin, Texas, believes there are five simple steps you can take to improve mouth health. The mouth is the gateway to the rest of your body. Improve your oral health and your general health is also likely to benefit. Dr. Craft's tips are easy to adopt and are as follows.

  1. Drink plenty of water. Water helps fight infection.
  2. Avoid eating sugary foods between meals.
  3. Floss at least once every day.
  4. Brush your teeth twice a day; when you get up and before you go to bed.
  5. Become more aware of the health of your mouth.

Dr. Craft talks about these in more detail in the video below.

Keep Your Mouth Clean and Healthy

Further Information

“Medical Benefits of Dental Floss Unproven” Jeff Donn: Associated Press Aug 2 2016

The American Dental Association (ADA) advocates the use of floss alongside interdental brushes.

The UK National Health Service (NHS) recommends using interdental brushes as part of your daily oral health routine. They only recommend floss if the gap between your teeth is too narrow to use a brush.

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    • johnmariow profile image

      John Gentile 3 months ago from Connecticut

      I been flossing daily for years. Four years ago, an abscess appeared on my gums well above the teeth. I started flossing and using a mouthwash that fights gingivitis. I still have that abscess but it has not gotten worse.

      Many years ago when I wasn't flossing, the dentist found a large cavity at the gum line between my teeth near the back of my mouth. He told me flossing could have prevented that cavity from forming. Today I totally agree with him.

    • Rosie Redfort profile image

      Rosie Redfort 3 months ago

      When flossing, I find that there are always little bits of food that come out on the floss. This might be because my teeth are particularly close together, but just thinking of the dental decay that this would cause, if not removed, is enough to make me floss every day! Interdental brushes are useful for getting bits of food out from nearer the gum line, but they can't be used between the top part of your teeth so flossing wins every time.

    • profile image

      MsDora 3 months ago

      Very helpful. At first, I ignored the instructions to foll, but now that I'm older I have adopted the habit. It is true that flossing alone does not remove everything between the teeth.

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