We’ve all heard it from our dentist, our parents, even our health teachers in school: Flossing is a necessary part of your daily oral hygiene ritual. However, this year, the federal government dropped its recommendation for daily flossing. This change in approach is reflected in many major newspapers declaring that flossing was no longer necessary. This proclamation was the result of a lack of study-based evidence that supports flossing as necessary for, or beneficial to, good oral hygiene.
Most Americans were shocked to find out that clinical studies did not support the practice of flossing for the prevention of cavities. Were their dentists lying to them? Had they been duped by the ruthless dental floss industry into buying $10, even $20 worth of unnecessary floss every year? Unfortunately, the sensational approach that American media took to what is really a nuanced story will likely result in many Americans choosing not to floss their teeth anymore, possibly to their own detriment.
No, Your Dentist Wasn’t Lying
One of the important things to note about the government’s stance on flossing is that studying the effects of flossing is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Because of limited timeframes in studies as well as limited pools of willing participants, those who study oral hygiene have an uphill battle trying to provide concrete evidence as to the efficacy of a hygiene habit. Anecdotal evidence from thousands of practicing dentists doesn’t stand up to peer review; there needs to be controls in place for the scientific community to embrace the results of a study.
So, why have dentists been telling people that they should floss? The theory is that flossing removes plaque and disturbs or disrupts the bacteria in the plaque, thus helping your toothbrush remove it before it can rampantly procreate in your mouth, leading to gum disease and/or cavities. Currently, there is very little scientific evidence to support the idea that flossing has any correlation with cavity prevention and only weak evidence to support flossing as means of staving off gum disease. However, there is some evidence that flossing can help with gingivitis.
Gingivitis, a word made common by mouth wash commercials, is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation and bleeding of the gums. Untreated, it can, over months and years, progress to periodontal disease, which results in tooth loss and even loss of bone in the jaw. Flossing helps to stimulate the gums, increasing blood flow to the tissue, and decreasing the frequency and severity of gum bleeding. There is some evidence that supports the idea that those who brush and floss are less likely to experience bleeding gums than those who only brush. Most dentists feel strongly enough about the importance of preventing that periodontal disease by reducing early stage gum inflammation to continue recommending flossing to their patients, even if that recommendation is no longer popular.
What Your Dentist Thinks About Flossing Now
The American Dental Association still endorses flossing. Most dentists will still recommend that their patients floss. It isn’t because they’re being paid off by the powerful dental floss lobby; it’s because they truly want their patients to have healthy mouths, gums, and teeth for their entire lives, if possible. For some people, genetics may make that a more difficult process, but a healthy mouth is something most everyone can attain with a little temporal and financial investment. Keep brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing before you brush at nighttime. At the very least, you’re minimizing the bacteria that could cause bad breath.
The best kind of flossing requires taut floss, slowly and carefully moved across the surface of the tooth, including below the gum line. Instead of just swiping the floss over your teeth, really focus on using the floss as tool to remove all that plaque. Even if there’s little evidence that doing so will prevent cavities, there is no denying that the gentle stimulation of the gums promotes healthy blood flow to the tissue and thus improves the gums’ ability to fight infection and inflammation. If you floss daily before going to bed, you are helping remove bacteria that would otherwise multiply over the night while you slept, possibly trapped against your teeth due to scraps of food lodged between your teeth or plaque under your gum lines.
You’re probably thinking that you floss and your teeth are healthy, therefore flossing helps keep your mouth healthier. And theoretically, you’re right. It just turns out that the federal government won’t be officially endorsing your oral hygiene habits as necessary anymore. For the sake of your mouth, however, it’s probably best to continue flossing, even if all it does is stave off low-level gum inflammation and decrease the severity of bad breath.