How Beneficial Is Flossing?

The average dentist will tell you that flossing is essential for oral health. Some scientists will tell you that flossing can even help to prevent heart disease and prolong your life. However, some insist that it’s all nonsense, and that flossing simply doesn’t provide the benefits that many claims.

So, what’s the truth? 

Let’s be honest, no one enjoys flossing and even people who have a dedicated dental hygiene regime tend to neglect it. The question is, is that neglect jeopardizing their health, and if so, by how much?

What does the Research Say?

Before we look at expert recommendations, it’s worth taking a look at the research, of which it is very little.

We have several small, controlled studies that suggest flossing can provide a “mild” improvement, removing more plaque and reducing the threat of gum disease. However, once these studies are scaled up to include thousands of people, the benefits disappear, and the results are a little less conclusive.

On the surface, it would seem that flossing simply doesn’t do much, and in the cases where it can provide some benefits, they are infinitesimal at best. This is the conclusion that several detractors have arrived at, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The problem with large scale studies is that they are expensive and, in the case of health and dental hygiene, incredibly unreliable. To make this work, researchers would need to speak with thousands of individuals and report their dental hygiene routines. They would then need to track those people, make sure they stick to the same regiments and then report on the ratio of gum disease and other dental issues.

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All good, right? Not quite.

If, during your next dental appointment, your dentist sits you down and asks you how many times you floss and for how long, what will you tell them? Will you be honest, will you only describe your routine on a very good day, or will you do what most people do and tell them what they want to hear?

People lie about these things, and they lie because they feel guilty. Research can’t account for those lies and yet they are enough to render all results redundant.

It takes a lot of time and money to run these studies and it would require even more time and money to account for this glaring issue. The question you have to ask yourself, and the question that many researchers pose, is why? Why go to all of that effort to prove something that should be obvious, something that common sense dictates are true?

What the Experts Say

The American Dental Association has been recommending flossing since 1908 and you will be hard-pressed to find a qualified dentist who doesn’t endorse it. In fact, some dentists recommended it as early as the 1870s, when the first dental floss was patented.

We know how food particles interact in the mouth and we know how they can lead to everything from bad breath to decay if they remain. Think about the last time that you had some food stuck between your teeth, a stubborn piece of popcorn or candy that refused to budge even when you brushed.

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You probably used floss or a toothpick to get rid, and in doing so you reduced the bacteria that forms when food particles remain. Now imagine what damage lots of little food particles can do if you don’t remove them, not to mention the damage that plaque can do when it is left to form in-between the gaps of your teeth.

Many detractors argue that while flossing can remove food particles, it is not effective at removing plaque. The British Dental Association has considered this, and it recommends using inter-dental brushes where possible to scrub the plaque away just like a toothbrush. Only when your teeth are tightly compact do they recommend flossing. These sentiments are echoed by many experts and it seems like the most common-sense solution.

Should You Floss?

If you focus purely on the research, you can pretty much dismiss flossing entirely. However, as noted above, that research is flawed, and common sense would dictate that flossing (and the use of inter-dental brushes) is effective.

More importantly, it’s cheap, easy, quick, and completely harmless. In other words, even if there is a slight chance that it can improve your dental health, it’s worth it. And if you can’t bear the tedium of flossing, consider a water flosser, which will blast those particles away. Just make sure you use inter-dental brushes to remove plaque in larger gaps.

As for the notion that flossing can help with heart problems, this is something we have discussed before (read our full guide here) and something we won’t go into here. Needless to say, it is another area where the research doesn’t tell the whole story.