Every time you visit the dentist for a checkup, there's one question you're almost certain to hear: "Have you been flossing regularly?" For a lot of patients, the answer isn't always yes. Many people make a point of brushing their teeth twice a day, as the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends, but fewer people follow the recommendation to floss at least once a day [source: ADA].
What many of these non-flossers don't realize is that this step plays an important role in dental health. Unlike a toothbrush, which cleans the tops and outer surfaces of the teeth and gums, floss is an interdental cleaner-- it's designed specifically to clean the tight spaces between the teeth and the gap between the base of the teeth and the gums. These are places that a toothbrush can't reach. And while antimicrobial mouthwash can kill the bacteria that form plaque, it can't remove the stubborn tartar and bits of food that can lodge in these places [source: ADA].
An increasing body of evidence suggests that proper dental care -- including regular flossing -- can do more than keep your smile pretty and healthy. A healthy mouth can also help prevent much more serious diseases, some of which can be life threatening [source: CDC]. But if you're still not convinced that you should add flossing to your daily routine, we've got five examples to make the case that flossing is extremely important, starting on the next page.
Flossing and Brushing Are More Effective Than Brushing Alone
If you're like a lot of people, your first response to your dentist's flossing recommendation may be "I brush my teeth, so I'm fine." While brushing your teeth twice a day will go a long way toward maintaining oral health, you're not getting the optimal cleaning if you leave the floss unused in the back of your medicine cabinet.
A toothbrush works by physically removing plaque -- a sticky, bacteria-laden film -- from your teeth with its soft bristles. Toothpaste enhances the effect of the toothbrush, and kinds that contain fluoride help reduce the amount of bacteria in your mouth. But brushing has one big drawback: A toothbrush's bristles can't adequately clean between the teeth or under the gums [source: ADA].
That's where floss comes in. It's a tool specifically made to remove plaque from the tight spaces between the teeth and under the gums. The ADA suggests that flossing before you brush also helps make brushing more effective: With less plaque caught between your teeth, the fluoride in toothpaste can get to more parts of your mouth. Think of floss and a toothbrush as a detail paintbrush and paint roller, respectively. You could paint your living room walls with just one of the tools, but using them together will provide a much more satisfactory result [source: ADA].
Flossing Protects Your Gums, Too
It's easier to understand the role that flossing can play in good oral hygiene by seeing how teeth are situated in the gums and jaw. At the root of this structure -- literally -- are the bones of the lower and upper jaws. The jaws anchor the teeth by their roots, and the bones and roots are covered by the soft, sensitive tissue of the gums [source: ADA].
The places where the gums and teeth meet are where flossing plays its major role. Tiny particles of food can get lodged here, and plaque in this area will harden and accrete over time to form tartar, a thick deposit that only the dentist can remove with a scraper. Tartar buildup can lead to gingivitis: red, swollen gums that are the first stage of gum disease. If left unchecked, the bacteria-laden tartar and plaque can spread even deeper below the gum line, causing periodontitis: severe gum disease characterized by severe inflammation and eventual tooth and bone loss [source: AAP].
Floss can get into the space between the teeth and gums, removing much of the food and plaque that a toothbrush or mouthwash can't move.
Flossing Can Save You Money
In an era of rising health care costs and diminishing insurance benefits, it pays to take steps to reduce your medical expenses. And according to research by the Children's Dental Health Project (CDHP), dental preventive care now can pay significant dividends down the road.
For a report published in 2005, CDHP researchers studied the costs of dental care for children who had their first dental checkups before one year of age versus children who had their first visit to the dentist after that age. By their fifth birthdays, the children in the first group had overall dental care costs some 40 percent lower than their peers [source: Sinclair].
Likewise, the researchers reported that in populations that statistically tend to rely on emergency room care instead of doctor visits, the cost for dental emergency visits can be as much as 10 times the cost of regular checkups over a given time period [source: Sinclair].
One of the reasons for the cost savings from regular dental visits? Education that encourages patients to brush and floss daily. Professional dental tools and procedures are highly advanced, and can repair even severe medical problems. But ask any dentist what the most effective, cost-efficient tools are for protecting oral health, and you're likely to receive a free toothbrush and box of floss.
Flossing Helps Prevent Other Diseases
Tooth and gum disease can have effects that go far beyond discolored teeth, discomfort or bad breath. Extensive research has shown that the bacteria that flourish in an unhealthy mouth can harm the rest of the body, leading to heart disease, diabetes and respiratory illness. This is such a significant issue that, in 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began calling for public health initiatives to address oral health as a step toward addressing these potentially life-threatening systemic diseases: conditions that affect multiple organs and body systems [sources: CDC, CDA].
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and more than 25 million Americans have diabetes, so if periodontal disease -- disease of the teeth, gums and mouth -- contribute to these systemic diseases, then a tool that helps improve oral health can play a major role in improving public health. Flossing only takes a few minutes every day, and adds little to the cost of toothpaste, toothbrushes and mouthwash. It's a small, simple step that can have huge implications for your long-term health [sources: CDC, American Diabetes Association]
Flossing Prevents Tartar Buildup
Few parts of a regular dental visit are as uncomfortable as the scraping the dentist or hygienist must do to remove tartar. Tartar is a hard buildup of plaque that forms around the gum line. Once it's there, it can't be removed without professional help. But thanks to floss, health-conscious individuals have a powerful tool to fight this stubborn problem.
Flossing allows you to remove the plaque that causes tartar while it's in its early form: sticky, but soft and pliable. Since plaque doesn't harden into tartar until it's been undisturbed for a period of time, regular flossing can keep buildup from happening.
A key to successfully fighting tartar is to combine flossing with brushing and possibly an ADA-approved mouthwash. Floss can remove the tartar from around the gums, but it's not able to strengthen tooth enamel like fluoride toothpaste or mouthwash can. Studies suggest that combining these tools delivers a one-two punch of physical plaque removal (flossing and brushing) and chemical cleaning (toothpaste and mouthwash).
A new way to brush your teeth? HowStuffWorks looks at toothpaste tablets.
- American Dental Association. "Cleaning Your Teeth and Gums." 2011. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2624.aspx
- American Dental Association. "Floss and Other Interdental Cleaners." 2011. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.ada.org/1318.aspx
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Oral Health. "Conference: Public Health Implications of Chronic Periodontal Infections in Adults." June 23, 2009. (Aug. 23, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/OralHealth/publications/resources/conferences/periodontal_infections01.htm
- American Academy of Periodontology. "Types of Gum Disease." April 1, 2011. (Aug. 23, 2011) http://www.perio.org/consumer/2a.html
- Sinclair, Shelly-Ann, MPH, Edelstein, Burton, DDS, MPH. "Cost Effectiveness of Preventive Dental Services." Children's Dental Health Project Policy Brief. Feb. 23, 2005
- American Dental Association. "Sensitive Teeth." 2011. (Sept. 3, 2011) http://www.ada.org/3058.aspx
- Green Eco Services. "Green and Healthy Mouths -- Dental Floss." Oct. 29, 2008. (Sept 5, 2011) http://www.greenecoservices.com/green-and-healthy-mouths-dental-floss/
- California Dental Association. "Oral Health and Systemic Disease." (Sept. 8, 2011) http://www.cda.org/popup/oral_health
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "February is American Heart Month." Jan. 31, 2011 (Sept. 8, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/features/heartmonth/
- American Diabetes Association. "Diabetes Statistics." Jan. 26, 2011 (Sept. 8, 2011) http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/