Flossing. It's something you know you should do, but how often do you actually get around to it? We get it; it's difficult and annoying and you often end up cutting off circulation to one or more fingers. Perhaps – if you're honest – you're not really sure how to floss properly anyway.
If this is a habit you've fallen behind on, you're certainly not alone. Less than a third of Americans use dental floss regularly, and a third have never bothered with it at all.
But it's actually an important part of your daily oral hygiene routine, so it's great that you're here to find out more about the right technique.
And if you're not a fan of traditional dental floss, don't worry. There is a variety of products that use different technologies to make the job much easier. Keep reading to find out which one you should be using.
Table of contents
- 1 Why does flossing matter?
- 2 How to floss your teeth
- 3 Products for better flossing
- 4 Keeping your teeth healthy
Why does flossing matter?
Small food particles can easily get lodged in the gaps between your teeth and below the gum line.
When you brush your teeth, you scrub bacteria, plaque and food particles off the chewing surfaces and visible sides of your teeth. But a regular toothbrush can't reach the tight spaces between your teeth and under your gums. This is why you need to do some kind of interdental (between-teeth) cleaning, too.
If you don't thoroughly clean plaque from your teeth, it hardens over time and forms a substance called tartar. This thick deposit can't be removed by brushing or flossing teeth; only dentists can dislodge it with specialist tools during a scale and polish (and the process isn't exactly pleasant).
Plaque and tartar build-up on your teeth creates a breeding ground for bacteria, which then start attacking your tooth enamel. It also gives you bad breath. If plaque develops in pockets between the teeth and gums it usually leads to gum disease (gingivitis). This condition eventually causes teeth to become loose and even fall out if it's not treated.
Brushing your teeth properly twice a day is essential for keeping your teeth and gums healthy, and certain electric toothbrushes use a pulsing motion to help clean between teeth. But they are still not a complete replacement for flossing.
If this isn't good enough motivation for you, consider this: looking after your teeth well now should mean that you need less dental work in the future. The cost of fillings, root canals, extractions, crowns, implants, etc. can easily add up, so you could say that flossing now will save you money on your future dental bills.
Summary of the benefits
To quickly recap, cleaning between teeth means:
- Cleaner teeth and gums
- Fresher breath
- Less need for painful tartar removal at the dentist
- Fewer cavities (and subsequent fillings)
- Less risk of developing gum disease
- Improved oral health so fewer complications later in life
- Less money spent on dental work!
How to floss your teeth
So, now that you're convinced of the benefits, what is the correct way to clean between your teeth? There are several factors to consider here, including the timing, frequency, and technique used.
How often should you floss?
The American Dental Association recommends cleaning between teeth once a day. Your dentist probably gives you the same advice every time you visit.
Children can start flossing when they are around 12, but they will need adult help and supervision at first.
Before or after brushing?
There are mixed theories on this. The most important thing is that you do it.
Some dentists recommend flossing before you brush. The logic behind this is that it helps dislodge any food and plaque on and between teeth so the fluoride in your toothpaste gets better access to the surface of the tooth. It also gets the unpleasant task out of the way first.
On the other hand, there is a case for brushing first because this removes most of the plaque on your teeth and coats them with fluoride. Then, when you floss, this helps work the fluoride between your teeth.
Some experts like the folks at the American Dental Association say it doesn't really matter – as long as you incorporate both elements into your daily hygiene routine. You might want to experiment and see which way around works best for you. The important thing is that you get into the habit of cleaning every surface of every tooth, every day. If you're not convinced, we have a whole article dedicated to the topic.
The best technique
It's easiest to see how to floss teeth by watching someone else do it, so here is a short video explaining the technique:
To summarize the steps involved:
- Choose a floss that suits you (waxed or unwaxed; flavored or unflavored; single or multi-strand).
- Break off about 18in.
- Wind some around your index or middle finger on each hand, leaving about 1in exposed.
- Pull it tight and use your thumbs to guide it into place between your teeth.
- Be careful not to force it or snap it onto your gums.
- Curve the floss around one tooth and gently push it as far as it will go, past the gum line.
- Move it up and down along the side of the tooth 8-10 times (not side to side).
- Repeat for the tooth on the other side.
- Gently remove the string from that space and unwind a clean piece to use on the next gap.
- Don't forget to clean the back of your four rear teeth as these can be difficult to reach with a toothbrush.
- Rinse with water or mouthwash.
Work your way methodically around your mouth and follow the same pattern every day. This will make it less likely that you miss a tooth.
You might notice your gums bleed a little when you first start flossing. This is probably just a sign that you are doing a good job of dislodging plaque, and the bleeding should subside after a few days of doing it. If it continues, you might need to change your technique or use a different product. Speak to your dentist if this is the case.
We'll explain how to use other flossing products in the section below.
Cleaning around braces
Cleaning your teeth gets more complicated if you are wearing any style of fixed braces. You can't slide anything all the way down the gap between your teeth since the archwire is in the way.
Check our article on flossing with braces for some tips, techniques, and products to make the process a little less difficult and time-consuming. You might want to invest in a water flosser but speak to your orthodontist to see what he or she recommends.
Products for better flossing
Now let's take a look at the various products available to help you make flossing a part of your daily routine. At the bottom of the page, you'll find a table to quickly compare the main features of each of these.
Dental floss and tape
If you think that all dental floss is the same, think again. This thin string is available with a variety of different features to suit different people's preferences.
For example, you can buy it waxed or unwaxed and with the option of different flavors. It can come as monofilament (single-strand) or multifilament (multi-strand). Monofilament floss doesn't fray and a wax-coated variety, like Oral-B Satin Floss, should slide between teeth more easily. These features increase the cost, but only slightly. You can even find eco-friendly floss if you're interested in green oral hygiene. Read about floss and toothbrushes in our bamboo toothbrush guide.
If the gaps between your teeth are particularly small you might prefer a dental tape, which is wider but thinner than the string version.
If you struggle with the dexterity required to use string wound around your fingers, you can try using a dental floss stick, also known as a ‘pick' or ‘wand'. These disposable items consist of a short piece of floss suspended between two plastic prongs on a handle. Often the handle is shaped into a point which can be used as a toothpick.
While they certainly make it easier to reach the back teeth, they don't offer the same range of motion and they may miss the area below the gum line. You might find this device more hygienic though, as you aren't touching the bacteria-covered string during use.
Oral irrigators (water jets)
For a more technological approach to cleaning between your teeth and under your gums, you could consider a water or air flosser. These hand-held devices, also known as oral irrigators, deliver a pressurized burst of air and/or water between each set of teeth.
Waterpik and Philips Sonicare AirFloss are two of the biggest names in this market, although many other brands are available. The AirFloss combines air and water in short bursts to “take the hassle out of flossing”. It only uses about a teaspoon of water per session, compared to the Waterpik which uses a lot more.
The general consensus among dentists is that water jets are not as effective as traditional string floss which physically scrapes plaque from teeth. And of course, they are much more pricey.
However, if you have trouble using regular techniques then a water flosser may be the next best thing. They also pose little risk of damage to gum tissue and are much easier to use if you wear braces. If you're considering investing in an electric flosser, check out our guide to the different models available in the U.S.
|Dental floss/tape||Sticks/Picks||Philips Sonicare AirFloss||Waterpik WP-660 Ultra|
|Cost||$2-$4 for a 10-50m roll||$4-$6 for multipack||Check with retailer||Check with retailer|
|Cleaning method||Scrapes plaque from teeth||Scrapes plaque from teeth||Microburst technology (pressurized air and water)||Pulsing water jet with 10 pressure settings|
|Features||May be flavored or waxed for smoother movement||Plastic handle; may be waxed or flavored||Angled nozzle; cordless; guidance tip for proper positioning||Pacer and timer; separate water reservoir|
|Pros||Cheap; most effective||Easy to reach back of mouth; hygienic||Easy to use with braces; gentle on gums; fits Sonicare toothbrush chargers||Easy to use with braces; gentle on gums|
|Cons||Fiddly/difficult to use; may damage gums if not used properly||Disposable plastic; doesn't achieve full range of motion; may damage gums||High cost; not as effective as normal flossing||High cost; not as effective as normal flossing; lots of water can be messy|
Keeping your teeth healthy
Cleaning your teeth well is just one part of maintaining good oral health. In addition, you should:
- Use a fluoride toothpaste
- Limit your consumption of sugary foods and drinks, and avoid snacking on them throughout the day
- Get regular dental checkups and cleanings
If you have any concerns about the state of your teeth, don't put off going to the dentist. The longer you leave it, the worse the problem is likely to get. You'll feel much better once any issues have been treated!