How to properly floss. A young women holds floss in her hands.

How to use dental floss for healthier teeth

Brushing alone cannot control plaque…read how to floss to get to the plaque between teeth
May 3, 2019

“How often should you floss your teeth?” is a common question patients ask in the dentist chair. Flossing can be tedious and uncomfortable and many people struggle to floss everyday like their dentist recommends.

“Brushing alone does not remove all plaque. If your teeth are close together, flossing is one of the only ways to get rid of the bacterial plaque that lives between your teeth,” says Deborah Foyle, DDS, MS, MSc, clinical assistant professor and director of pre-doctoral periodontics at the Texas A&M College of Dentistry. “Plaque can cause tooth decay and gum disease if it is not removed.”

How to use dental floss

First, it’s important to know the basics of flossing your teeth. The American Dental Association provides the following tips:

  • Break off about 18 inches of floss and wind most of it loosely 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 is used.
  • Hold the floss tightly between your thumbs and forefingers.
  • Guide the floss between your teeth using a gentle sawing 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.

When should you floss: before or after brushing your teeth?

“You should aim to floss at least once per day,” Foyle said. “Some people floss more often, and some people floss less often. However, if you regularly floss less than once per day then you run the risk of developing periodontal disease—gum disease.”

Gum disease can lead to receding, tender gums and bad breath. Ultimately, these symptoms of gum disease can make it more painful to chew and eventually lead to tooth loss.

Some studies found that flossing before brushing may be the best order for your nightly routine. If you floss before you brush, then you can brush away all the loose plaque.

Which dental floss is the best?

Multifilament floss is the most common type of floss on the market. Typically, multifilament floss is made out of nylon or silk, but most are made from nylon.

Multifilament floss also comes waxed or un-waxed. Wax generally makes gliding the floss between your teeth easier and some say more comfortable.

A downside to multifilament floss is that it may shred or break more easily 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, but the most important thing is choosing floss you like and using it every day,” Foyle said.

Flossing tools to make it easier

Gripping the floss, while simultaneously attempting to get to those hard-to-reach places, can be difficult for even the most experienced flossers.

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. 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. The 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.

How to floss teeth with braces or with limited motor function

People with braces have to navigate wires making flossing even more difficult. Foyle suggests using interproximal cleaners like Stim-U-Dents, soft picks, floss threaders or water irrigators.

Water irrigators shoot water between teeth and clean out areas where gums pull away from the teeth and form spaces, called pockets or crevices. Plaque often hides in these crevices.

Due to its ease of use, water irrigators are a good option for those who have diminished motor function. That being said, Foyle mentions water irrigators do not remove all plaque and should be used in conjunction with manual flossing.

Why is flossing important?

Flossing controls plaque buildup, and plaque buildup can lead to gum disease. “Flossing is an essential component of good oral health,” Foyle said. “Flossing products are really a matter of personal preference. After all, the best floss is the one that gets used.”

— Mary Leigh Meyer

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