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Flossing 101: Tips for a healthy smile

“Brushing alone cannot control plaque; to get to all the plaque that finds its way between teeth, you need floss."
Female flossing

“Do you floss everyday?” is probably the most dreaded question patients face when sitting in the dentist chair. Flossing can be tedious and uncomfortable and is probably only enjoyed by dental professionals like William Wathen, D.M.D., associate professor at the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry.

Everyday, twice a day, Wathen brushes, uses regular dental floss, then stim-u-dents and tops it off with the water pick. You may not be as committed to your dental routine as Wathen, but one thing you should do is brush twice daily and floss at least once each day.

“Brushing alone cannot control plaque; to get to all the plaque that finds its way between teeth, you need floss,” Wathen said. To make flossing easier, Wathen suggests simple tips that will make you smile a little bigger the next time you see your dentist.

Back to the basics

First, it’s important to know the basics. The American Dental Association provides the following five steps to a flawless floss:

  • Break off about 18 inches of floss and wind most of it around one of your middle fingers. Wind the rest around the same finger of the opposite hand. This finger will take up the floss as it becomes dirty.
  • Hold the floss tightly between your thumbs and forefingers.
  • Guide the floss between your teeth using a gentle rubbing motion. Never snap the floss into the gums.
  • When the floss reaches the gum line, curve it into a C shape against one tooth. Gently slide it into the space between the gum and the tooth.
  • Hold the floss tightly against the tooth. Gently rub the side of the tooth, moving the floss away from the gum with up and down motions. Repeat this method on the rest of your teeth.

Before or after brushing?

We all know it’s important to floss once per day, but when is the best time to floss: before or after brushing?

In response, Wathen said, “I prefer to floss at night, before brushing. That way all the daily interproximal plaque is loosened and then brushed away. Night is preferred because salivary flow diminishes at night, thereby reducing its neutralizing effects on the harmful acids and chemicals plaque produces.”

Choosing a floss

One stroll through the dental health aisle of your local grocery store could leave you in a tizzy. But Wathen breaks down the different “types” of floss (multifilament or monofilament) to help make your selection a little less cumbersome.

Multifilament is the most common type of floss on the market, and is the standard dental floss that’s been around forever. Typically, multifilament floss is made out of nylon or silk, but by far the most common material is nylon. Multifilament floss also comes waxed or un-waxed. Wax generally makes gliding the floss between your teeth easier and some say that it is more comfortable. A downside to multifilament floss is that it may shred or break easier than monofilament floss. Monofilament floss is newer to the market and made out of plastic or rubber. Since it’s stronger, it doesn’t shred or tear. People generally find monofilament floss easier to use and move between teeth; hence many brands use the word “glide” in the floss name.

Both types come in different thicknesses and flavors, depending upon your needs.

“The type of floss you use is more a matter of preference than which one works better, but the most important thing is choosing floss you like and using it everyday,” Wathen said.

Add-ons to make flossing a little less of a juggling act

Gripping the floss, while simultaneously attempting to get to those hard-to-reach places, can make for a silly scene for even the most experienced flossers. To make the experience a little easier, Wathen suggests floss aids.

Floss holders are small plastic tools that do what the name suggests—hold floss—and they can make your oral routine less of a mouthful. They come in two different shapes: C-shaped and Y-shaped. Wathen recommends the Y-shaped floss holder, as it is better equipped to reach the back teeth. Besides shape, you also have the choice of floss holders that already have the floss attached: these aids can save you not only time, but also floss.

Other manual options include the classic stim-u-dent and soft picks. Stim-u-dents are small pieces of lightweight wood that soften when wet, and they are a personal favorite of Wathen’s. Soft picks look like tiny Christmas trees. Their shape and bristles are perfect for those with braces or permanent retainers, as they effortlessly go between wire and teeth.

Orthodontic patients have to navigate wires making flossing even more difficult, but Wathen has some suggestions for them as well, “Try using interproximal cleaners like Stim-U-Dents, soft picks, floss threaders, or water irrigators.”

For those who want a more high-tech option, there are water irrigators (devices that shoot water between teeth and clean out areas where gums pull away from the teeth and form spaces, called pockets or crevices – where plaque often hides). Due to its ease of use, water irrigators are a good option for those who have diminished motor function, but Wathen warns that these should be used in conjunction with manual flossing, as they are not the most well-equipped to remove all plaque. Begin using these slowly, however. “When first starting out, make sure you use the lowest pressure level first,” Wathen said.

While there are numerous products on the market to help make flossing a little easier, the most important thing to remember is that flossing controls plaque buildup and plaque buildup can lead to gum disease. “If in doubt about your cleaning effectiveness, try a plaque disclosing solution, which you can find at your local pharmacist and follow the directions to stain the plaque. Then, use whatever works best for you to remove all traces of the plaque,” Wathen said.

“Flossing is an essential component of good oral health,” Wathen said. “Flossing products are really a matter of personal preference. After all, the best floss is the one that gets used,” he said.

Find your own routine so the next time your dentist asks if you floss everyday, you can smile and say yes.

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