A moderate amount of research suggests that flossing can help prevent tooth decay, cavities, and gum disease. It also might help prevent bad breath and heart problems.
As much as we’d like for this to be about the 2017 dance craze, this isn’t that type of flossing. We’re talking about the original kind — for your teeth.
Yes, there has been plenty of debate in recent years about the general effectiveness of flossing for overall dental health. And let’s face it: If we don’t HAVE to do something, we’re prob not gonna do that thing as often. So should we send this activity down the drain?
Of course, if you ask a dentist, from anecdotal evidence alone, they’ll def say to keep it up. So we fought tooth and nail to get to the root of the research and take a bite out of the real flossing benefits (#SorryNotSorry for the puns 🦷).
1. Reduces plaque
Plaque is a translucent, sticky film that collects on your teeth and gumline. When you eat starchy or sugary foods and drinks, the bacteria in your mouth release acids to break down the carbs. If you don’t brush or floss, the bacteria, acids, and carbs keep doing their thing, eventually leaving behind a filmy residue.
The plaque can then release even more acids that harm your tooth enamel and eventually lead to cavities (aka holes in your teeth).
If you don’t go to town cleaning your mouth, plaque can also harden into tartar, which builds up along the gumline. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), as tartar grows, your risk of getting gum disease grows too.
Even if you think the research is sus, it just makes sense that brushing and flossing would help remove this buildup. And, along with the likes of interdental cleaners (tools that clean between your teeth) and the special tools your dentist has, these are the best methods we have to get rid of it.
2. Reduces cavity risk
From a simple cause-and-effect standpoint, the more plaque you have, the higher your cavity risk is. And so far, the ADA agrees that the best way we know how to remove this plaque from your teeth and gums is with brushing, flossing, and interdental devices.
Flossing between your teeth can remove hidden food particles and plaque buildup that your toothbrush can’t reach, therefore lowering your risk of decay. Even if we need more research to know *exactly* how effective flossing is, it seems pretty promising so far.
3. May help prevent gum disease
Eventually, tooth decay can also lead to sore, bleeding gums; pain when chewing; and even tooth loss — all hallmarks of gum disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 50 percent of people over age 30 in the United States have some form of gum disease, aka periodontal disease. (Yikes!)
In a 2017 study of nearly 9,700 adults, researchers concluded that flossing is associated with a “modestly lower prevalence” of periodontitis, the most severe form of gum disease. Those who flossed at least once a week had a 17 percent lower risk of periodontitis than those who flossed less often.
Although the CDC and ADA recommend flossing at least once a day to prevent gum disease, it seems that even less frequent flossing could help.
4. Helps with bad breath
Forget the breath mint — floss before your big date instead. If you wanna kick halitosis to the curb, there’s some evidence that flossing could help.
According to a 2013 research review, proper oral health, including flossing, is “very important” for preventing bad breath.
Basically, even if you brush regularly, bacteria can build up between your teeth. And that buildup can lead to serious odors if you don’t get rid of it. That’s where the flossing comes in.
Heads-up: Researchers also recommend using an interdental brush or sometimes using a tongue scraper to prevent bad breath.
5. Could benefit your heart health
Flossing your teeth could help your … heart? There’s a lot of research to support the link between oral health and heart health, so this theory isn’t as wild as it sounds.
In a large 2020 study of more than 160,000 people, those who followed a strict oral hygiene routine over a period of about 10.5 years had a decreased risk of heart problems like irregular heartbeat and heart failure.
A 2010 review also found a strong link between gum disease and heart disease in general — but of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean gum disease was the cause. It could be that those who take better care of their teeth are also more likely to take care of their overall health, for instance.
However, some dentists say that the bacteria from gum disease in your mouth can travel through your bloodstream and into your heart, affecting both areas.
Again, we can’t be sure of the link yet, but it still might be worth taking the few mins to brush and floss, just in case it could do your heart and your smile some favors.
Convinced to get flossing? Here’s how to do it right, step by step:
- Break off 18 to 24 inches of dental floss from the little wheel. Wind the floss around both middle fingers, leaving a couple inches for your teeth.
- Hold the floss taut with your thumbs and index fingers.
- Put the floss between two teeth — wherever you want to start. Gently glide the floss up and down, creating friction against both sides of your teeth. Don’t dig down deeply into your gums, though, which can bruise them.
- Curve the floss around the base of your tooth, making a C shape. This lets the floss really get into the space between your gums without damaging them.
- Repeat these steps for each tooth intersection. Use a new, clean section of the floss each time.
How often should you floss?
The ADA recommends flossing at least once a day and brushing your teeth 2x a day. You can floss at any time of the day or night — whenever works best for your schedule.
Some dentists advise flossing *before* you brush. That way, the floss can loosen food bits and plaque, and then the brush can whisk them away.
Maybe you remember the Great Floss Debate of the 2010s, when a 2011 review that supposedly disproved the effectiveness of flossing basically broke the internet (and a lot of dentists’ hearts).
Based on 12 randomized controlled trials, researchers said they didn’t find enough evidence to support the idea that flossing could reduce plaque after 1 to 3 months. This eventually led to headlines like “Flossing Doesn’t Actually Work” and “Toss the Floss!”
But don’t throw out your Oral-B just yet.
According to a 2019 review, using floss or interdental devices in addition to brushing your teeth regularly could definitely reduce plaque and gingivitis risk more than just brushing. While the certainty of the evidence is still considered “low to very low,” the outlook is better than the days of yesteryear.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the issue isn’t that flossing doesn’t work — it’s that long-term, large-scale, highly controlled flossing studies have been pretty limited so far.
So, the idea is that once there’s more high quality research, we can all go back to flossing with confidence (or at least the 32-ish percent of adults who say they floss regularly can).
In the meantime, as we mentioned earlier, there’s some evidence that not flossing on the regular could lead to issues like:
- tooth decay
- gum disease
- eventually, serious problems such as tooth loss (as a result of gum disease)
Not to imply that skipping the floss will definitely result in health issues — but you’ll def want to be on the lookout for some warning signs.
In general, it’s a good idea to head to the dentist for an oral checkup if you:
- Have sore or bleeding gums. If your gums are sore or bleed when you brush your teeth or floss, you might have gingivitis — the earliest stage of gum disease. But gingivitis *is* reversible, unlike the later stage, aka periodontitis. So head to a pro for an assessment and treatment.
- Have tooth or jaw pain or sensitivity. If your teeth or jaw is aching or sensitive, you could have a cavity, an infection, or another oral issue like an abscessed tooth.
- Notice sudden changes in taste or smell. Sometimes, these changes can signal a problem with your teeth or gums, such as periodontal disease.
- Haven’t been to the dentist in 12 months. The CDC recommends heading to the dentist at least once a year to make sure everything’s in order. If you have gum disease or diabetes, if you smoke, of if you’re prone to tooth decay, you might need to go more often.
Sure, the research is a little mixed, but ask any dentist and they’ll tell you that taking 2 mins to floss your teeth each day is vital to your oral health. For now, flossing and interdental devices are the best ways we know to remove harmful bacteria and plaque from between your teeth.
So, in addition to brushing 2x a day, break out the floss at least once daily for A+ oral health.