5 Things You Didn't Know About Flossing Your Teeth
The answer to "waxed or unwaxed?" reusing floss and other burning questions
A quarter of Americans actually lie about how often they clean between their teeth. That's according to a recent Harris poll conducted on behalf of the American Academy of Periodontology. Not only that, more than a third of people would rather sit in traffic, clean toilets or suffer through some other unpleasant activity than pick up a string of dental floss.
That’s a shame, because flossing is critical to dental health. “A toothbrush alone can never reach the areas between teeth where food particles get caught and many cavities begin,” says Sivan Finkel, DMD, an aesthetic and general dentist in New York City.
“Brushing is great for the insides of cheeks, your tongue and of course the biting surfaces of teeth, but contrary to what manufacturers may say, you can’t get in between the teeth with a toothbrush,” agrees Kenyon Glor, DDS, a general dentist in Wellington, Ohio.
What’s more, flossing gets underneath the gum line — another spot a brush can’t access — to remove plaque from the root surfaces of teeth. Plaque that’s left alone at the gums can harden into calculus, resulting in bleeding and eventually periodontitis (recession and bone loss around the teeth).
Flossing is even more essential for older folks. “As gums recede, root surfaces, which are not protected by enamel like the crowns of teeth, are exposed,” explains Glor.
Here are five things you need to know about flossing your teeth.
Waxed vs. unwaxed: It's all the same, except to you
Floss choices can be almost as overwhelming as orange juice choices (low pulp, high pulp, no pulp, with or without calcium). Fortunately, there’s no right or wrong choice. In theory the wax helps floss slide between tightly spaced teeth. But according to the American Dental Association's website, "There is no difference in the effectiveness of waxed or unwaxed floss."
Says Finkel, “I generally recommend unwaxed floss as the waxed variety can leave wax between some people’s teeth.”
What about "ribbon floss," aka dental tape? It's wider and flatter than standard floss and is designed for people with wide spaces between their teeth or those with bridgework.
What’s most important is finding a floss that you’ll use on a regular basis, adds Glor. “It’s a personal choice — try a few types to find which one works best for you,“ he advises.
You may be flossing wrong
How you handle floss matters. Using the wrong technique — including "sawing" the floss back and forth — may even do more harm than good. This is how the ADA recommends you floss your teeth:
- Pull off a generous length of floss — about 18 inches — and wrap most of it around the middle finger of one hand, and the rest around the middle finger of the other hand.
- Holding the floss tightly between your thumbs and forefingers, gently guide it between two of your teeth until it reaches the gum line.
- Curve the floss into a C shape so that it hugs one of the teeth and gently slide it into the space between the tooth and gum.
- Keep the floss firmly against the tooth and move it up and down, away from the gum, never back and forth. “Moving from side to side with the floss can aggravate gums — cutting into them and causing them to bleed,” warns Finkel.
- Keep the floss between the same two teeth so you can clean the other one.
- Repeat with all your teeth, periodically unwinding some fresh floss.
You're probably flossing at the wrong times
Floss before brushing, not after, to loosen food particles and make them easier for your toothbrush to sweep away. You should floss at least once a day, but twice is nice, dentists say.
Floss before bedtime if you can manage only one session a day. During sleep, saliva production slows down, leaving the mouth dry. Under these conditions, food particles between teeth are more susceptible to being attacked by bacteria, leaving teeth more prone to decay, explains Finkel.
Glor offers another strategy if flossing seems too difficult or time-consuming to do twice a day. “I suggest to my patients that they floss their upper teeth in the morning and the lower ones at night,” he says.
Picks and other pokey things are no substitute
Pre-threaded flossers (which can’t wrap easily around teeth), water picks and rubber-tipped sticks may seem like they’d be useful for dislodging bits of food. In the end, though, “flossing is best, there’s really no question,” says Glor.
Picks and other devices that claim to get between the cracks in teeth are only partially effective, Glor and Finkel agree. “But,” adds Finkel, “they’re better than nothing.” At the very least, they can do in a pinch when you’re in a situation where whipping out a string of floss wouldn’t be convenient or appropriate.
You shouldn't reuse floss
It may seem tempting to rinse and reuse the same strand of floss. But the ADA recommends against it. It can deposit bacteria back in the mouth.