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Don't Throw Out Your Floss

Tooth Flossing

To floss or not to floss? That is the question after a flood of articles alleging there's little scientific evidence that flossing works. The pieces cite a letter sent by the Department of Health and Human Services to the Associated Press acknowledging that the effectiveness of flossing has never been fully researched. However, dental experts say not to throw away your floss just yet. "There is no doubt that flossing helps remove particles of food and bacteria stuck between your teeth and below the gumline that aren't removed with brushing or rinsing alone," says James Winkler, DDS, PhD, section head of periodontics at the University of Utah School of Dentistry. "If the bacteria and food aren't removed they can cause periodontal (gum) disease and break down the enamel of the tooth, leading to dental cavities."

Part of the criticism of flossing is that the research has included a small sample of people and is based on data collected several decades ago. Winkler says this simply means more studies need to be done. "Studies need to focus not only the general public, but on those at the most risk for gum disease like diabetics and smokers," he says.

Based on available scientific evidence and research regarding periodontal disease and prevention of dental cavities, the University of Utah School of Dentistry teaches its students that proper brushing and flossing is still a main component of overall good oral hygiene that is necessary to maintain a healthy and inflammation-free environment in the mouth.

You should floss at least once a day, before or after brushing - and be sure to do it correctly to get the full benefit. If done incorrectly, flossing can mechanically damage the gums. Many people use a quick back-and-forth motion, which does not adequately clean the sides of the teeth and below the gumline. Instead, use an up-and-down motion while carefully wrapping floss in a C-shape around the tooth and below the gumline to lift debris out of pockets around the teeth and from the spaces between them. "You can see a definite difference in the mouth and gums of someone who flosses properly versus the mouth of someone who does not," says Winkler.

While dental experts recommend flossing, they do not recommend one kind or brand of floss over another. A person's attachment to his or her floss is primarily psychological, and has little to do with how well it works. "If you prefer smooth ribbon-like floss, you believe it works better than a coarse floss," says Winkler. "It doesn't matter as long as you are flossing routinely and correctly."

Oral health is important, and the health of your teeth and gums often mirrors your overall health. Furthermore, inflammation in your mouth, due to gum disease, can have major effects on your total body health. Flossing takes only minutes every day and ensures that all sides of your teeth, above and below the gumline, are clean, leading to good oral health. "Clean your entire tooth," says Winkler. "It's better to be safe than sorry."