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The Right Way to Floss

Dentists say flossing is as important as brushing. Here's how to do it correctly.
By Shelley Levitt
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Eric Yabu, DDS

It's a simple piece of string, sometimes flavored, often waxed. Wrap 18 inches or so around your finger, and you have a powerful tool that can help prevent cavities and give your overall health a big boost.

Dental floss dislodges food particles trapped between the teeth and under the gums where toothbrushes can't reach. Left unchecked, bacterial buildup can lead to cavities, bad breath, and gum disease.

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If that's not scary enough, Jyoti Srivastava, DDS, a New York City dentist with advanced training in tooth replacement and restoration, points out that "gum disease is an inflammatory disorder that can contribute to major problems throughout the body." Recent studies suggest links between advanced gum disease and diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and stomach cancer, though more research is needed.

If you practiced ideal dental hygiene, you'd be flossing after every meal. "Do that and you'll have an absolutely immaculate mouth," says Srivastava, "but we know that's not practical for most people -- so we hope our patients floss once daily." Bedtime, rather than morning, is the better choice for once-a-day flossers.

"Your salivary flow is very low when you're sleeping," Srivastava says. "So for those 7 or 8 hours you're in bed, you're not washing away the bacteria teeming in your mouth."

Dentists recommend spending 2 minutes brushing your teeth. With practice, flossing will take you an additional minute. Begin on the upper right, go all the way around to the upper left, and then go from the lower left to the lower right.

If you're so tired at the end of your day that you can devote only 60 seconds to dental hygiene, what do you do? Floss. "I'm not suggesting you skip brushing, but it's absolutely essential to floss every day," says Srivastava.

What Kind of Floss?

Stand in the dental aisle of your drugstore, and you'll see a variety of dental floss. Srivastava breaks down the choices with these tips.

Waxed vs. unwaxed floss. They're equally effective at removing tooth debris, but "I strongly recommend waxed. It's much easier to slide between your teeth and much less likely to shred," Srivastava says.

Flavored wax. It won't add calories, so if you like how dental floss flavored with mint or cinnamon leaves your mouth feeling fresher, that's a great choice for you.

Ribbon or tape vs. fine floss. Opt for wider floss. "Ribbon or tape floss covers a larger portion of the tooth, so it does a better job of cleaning," Srivastava says. "It also feels more comfortable in your hand and is less likely to cut your gums."

Floss picks. These disposable, pre-threaded floss-holders can help you reach into the back corners of your mouth. They're also great for flossing on the go.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine." 

Reviewed on September 21, 2013

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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