Types of floss

Dental floss is a flexible strand made of nylon filaments or plastic monofilaments. Dentists recommend flossing once a day to remove plaque, prevent gum disease and help reduce bad breath.
Dental floss is a flexible strand made of nylon filaments or plastic monofilaments. Dentists recommend flossing once a day to remove plaque, prevent gum disease and help reduce bad breath.

Your dentist recommends that you floss daily. But like many Americans, you may only floss when you have something stuck in your teeth. Is flossing necessary?

Dental floss is a flexible strand made of nylon filaments or plastic monofilaments. It comes in waxed and unwaxed forms. Other types of interdental cleaners that can clean between your teeth include:

  • Pre-threaded flossers
  • Dental or floss picks
  • Water flossers
  • Air flossers 
  • Plaque removers made of wood
  • Tiny brushes that reach between your teeth 

Flossing not only removes food stuck between your teeth. It gets rid of any plaque build-up you might not see.

What is plaque?

Your mouth is home to 700 species of microbes. These include bacteria, fungus, and more. Some are beneficial to your health, but others can cause diseases like tooth decay.

The microbes in your mouth work together to protect themselves. They form a sticky film called plaque.

When you eat sugary foods and drinks, you’re feeding these microbes. They increase in number and produce acids. These acids eat away at the outer layer of your teeth and may cause cavities.

Why floss?

Reasons include that flossing:

Removes plaque. Brushing can remove some plaque, but a toothbrush can’t reach between your teeth. Research has shown that flossing in addition to brushing reduces gum disease (gingivitis) compared to just brushing alone.

A survey found that only 16% of Americans floss at least once a day. About 20% floss only when something is stuck, and 8% never floss at all.

If you don’t remove plaque by flossing and brushing, it will form tartar (calculus). Regular brushing can’t remove tartar. Only professional cleaning by a dental hygienist or dentist can get rid of it.

Helps prevent gum disease. Gum disease is an infection of your gums. This happens when you have a build-up of plaque along and under your gum line. In the US, 47.2% of adults aged 30 years and older have some form of gum disease.

Reduces bad breath. Bad breath can sometimes be a sign of bigger problems like cavities and gum disease. Flossing removes the bacteria hiding in your mouth. 

To floss or not to floss?

You might have seen news reports stating that flossing isn’t necessary. That’s because large-scale and long-term flossing studies have been limited. Periodontitis can take months or even years to develop. But most flossing studies have been carried out over relatively short periods.

Experts say that large-scale studies are not only expensive but also difficult to carry out. These rely on people telling the truth about their dental habits. But when it comes to questions about health behaviors, most people tend to give what they think is the right answer.

Studies in the real world tend to show weak and unreliable evidence. Controlled studies, where scientists monitor flossing, have shown that flossing is effective. Experts recommend flossing daily.

When to floss

Dentists recommend brushing twice a day and flossing once a day. Some people floss before bedtime, others prefer to floss in the morning, or after lunch. The best time to floss is when it best fits your schedule.

You can floss before or after brushing your teeth. But if you floss after brushing, there’s a likelihood that you may skip flossing because you think your teeth feel clean or you run out of time.

How to floss properly

It’s important to floss your teeth the right way. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take about 18 inches (45 centimeters) of floss. Wind most of it around one of your middle fingers. The remaining floss should be wound around your other middle finger. 
  2. Hold the floss between your thumbs and forefingers. 
  3. Gently move the floss between your teeth. Use a rubbing motion. Don’t snap the floss into your gums.
  4. At your gum line, curve the floss into a C shape against one tooth. Slide it gently into the space between tooth and gum.
  5. Gently rub the side of your tooth. Use up and down motions to move the floss. 
  6. Repeat this on all your teeth. This includes cleaning behind your last tooth.
  7. Throw the floss away when done. Don’t reuse the floss as it’s not as effective when used again. 

Talk to your dentist if you’re having problems flossing. They may recommend using a water flosser or other types of interdental cleaners instead.

Besides daily flossing, you should:

  • Brush for two minutes after every meal. If you can’t brush, at least rinse your mouth with water.
  • See your dentist regularly for check-ups and cleanings. Regular visits allow your dentist to spot any problems early on when treatment is easier and cheaper. 

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Medically Reviewed on 9/9/2021
References
SOURCES:

American Dental Association: "Floss/Interdental Cleaners," "New survey highlights 'unusual' flossing habits."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Periodontal Disease."

Cochrane Database Systematic Review: "Flossing for the management of periodontal diseases and dental caries in adults."

Mouth Healthy: "5 Steps to a Flawless Floss,” “Halitosis."

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: "Periodontal (Gum) Disease."

NIH News in Health: "Don't Toss the Floss!" "Mouth Microbes."