On the lengthy list of things you do for your health — exercise, ease up on sodas, eat less salt, eat more Brussels sprouts — flossing your teeth is probably near the bottom. It might even be under Brussels sprouts.
It shouldn’t be. If you don’t floss regularly, you’re inviting gum diseases — gingivitis in its early form, periodontitis when it takes hold — tooth decay, and possibly a world of hurt in the dentist’s chair.
Still, flossing sits so low on people’s lists that the CDC says more than 47% of adults 30 and older have some sort of periodontal disease.
The trick to flossing, for many, is simply picking up the floss and starting.
“The nice thing about flossing is, once you start, your teeth feel so icky if you don’t do it, that you just have to continue,” says Kimberly Harms, DDS, a dentist from Farmington, MN.
What’s the problem with flossing? We have a list of excuses. With a little work, they all can be overcome.
‘I can never do it right.’
Many of us don’t floss correctly.
“It’s not just inserting the thread in between the teeth and just pushing it out. You’ve got to really slide it on the tooth surface,” says Sangeeta Gajendra, DDS, a dentist with the Eastman Institute for Oral Health in Rochester, N.Y. “Every time you push it between two teeth, you have to remember that both teeth need to be cleaned. Then only, it will do a good job.”
Other tips include:
Use 18 inches of floss. Wrap most around the middle finger of one hand, the rest around your other middle finger.
Grasp the string tightly between your thumb and forefinger. Use a rubbing motion to guide it between teeth.
When the floss reaches the gum line, form a “C” to follow the shape of the tooth.
Hold the strand firmly against the tooth and move it gently up and down.
Repeat with the adjacent tooth, then with the rest of your teeth.
Use fresh sections of floss as you go.
‘My gums bleed when I floss.’
If you’re just starting out, you’re probably going to bleed a little. That should stop within a week or two.
But form is important.
“Some people can be overly vigorous with their flossing,” says Armand Lione, president of the National Flossing Council. “They just have to floss their teeth and not dig up their gums too much.”
Flossing is a physical act. And if your gums are inflamed from all the bacteria that hasn’t been flossed out, they’ll get a little angry until you clean it out.
“It’s sort of a like Catch-22,” says Maricelle Abayon, DMD, another Rochester dentist. She also points out that gums will bleed, too, if you “snap” the floss down on the gum or “saw” at the bottom of a tooth instead of gently moving it up and down.
If your gums continue to bleed after a week or two of regular flossing, visit your dentist to find out what’s going on.
‘My teeth are too close together.’
Gajendra says there are tight fits, and they are difficult. Still, there are ways you can deal with that — and they’re in your store.
There are waxed and unwaxed flosses. You can also get them in different thicknesses, he says.
‘I can’t get to my back teeth.’
This is a typical complaint, and a valid one. Little mouths, coupled with lots of teeth and big hands can create quite a challenge.
“I get people who’ll say I can do the front, but the back is very difficult to reach,” Abayon says. “We kind of show them how to do that in the office. We can stand in front of the mirror and show them how to go back to front or front to back to access the area.”
Try something called a floss holder. It’s a small plastic instrument with a short handle that allows you to reach the area with one hand. Talk to your dentist or hygienist about them.
‘I just don’t have the time.’
Harms doesn’t buy this one.
“One of the biggest excuses that people give to me is, ‘I don’t have time,’” he says, “and, of course, you don’t have time not to, really.”
You only need to floss once a day. Of course, more won’t hurt. With some of the products out there — like single-use floss holders you can keep in your desk or a purse — flossing isn’t something that needs to be done at home, either.
“When you’re watching TV. When you’re doing things privately. When you’re just sitting. That’s the time when it’s really a nice time to floss, and it’s not going to take any additional time,” Harms says.
Lame. But every dentist has heard this one.
“‘I brush, but I forget about flossing,’” Gajendra says. “My advice is always keep a floss right next to your toothbrush, so you cannot forget it.”
‘I use mouthwash instead.’
It can help get food particles stuck in your teeth. It can freshen breath. It can kill bacteria.
But can mouthwash replace floss?
“I don’t think you can substitute it for flossing,” Gajendra says. “With mouthwash, you think you’re removing all the debris from between the teeth, but plaque, for instance, really sticks on the tooth’s surface and only mechanically removing it with the floss will help. You literally, mechanically, have to do it. That’s why you use a toothbrush. And that’s why you have to floss.”
‘I don’t want to kick up all the germs in there.’
Yep, there are germs in your mouth. Flossing, especially if there’s blood involved, might help move some of that into your bloodstream. “But nobody is suggesting that you don’t floss or brush your teeth,” Lione says. “The risks are not that great.”
There is a link between periodontal disease and heart disease — it’s why people with heart problems often get prescribed antibiotics before they go to the dentist. The connection is still a little murky, but there is a link.
“It’s true. Every time you go in there, you clean up, you’re going to stir up a little. But you have to remove [the bacteria and germs]. They’re still there otherwise, and they produce toxins,” says Hans Malmstrom, DDS, a professor at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “If you leave it, it can get even worse.”