Less than 50 years ago, elderly people went to sleep with their teeth in a jar next to the bed. But now your teeth can last a lifetime provided you use good oral hygiene—which includes a daily regimen of flossing before bedtime.
Flossing removes bacteria, prevents gum disease and prevents the loss of teeth.
“The root of all evil, when it comes to periodontal disease, is the plaque that forms on your teeth every 24 hours,” says Dr. Kimberly Harms, consumer adviser for the American Dental Association. The purpose of flossing is to remove plaque, the colorless film of bacteria that forms on the surface of teeth. “The bacteria in plaque produce toxins, and if you don’t remove it the toxins will irritate the gums, create a painful inflammation and eventually cause the loss of bone around the tooth.”
Flossing once at the end of the day is all it takes—before or after brushing doesn’t matter. The primary reason for flossing is plaque removal.
If you’re old enough to have teeth, floss them.
The point of flossing is to clean the tight space between teeth that grow closely together. Wherever two teeth are touching, you need to find a way to clean between them. Even baby teeth, though they will eventually fall out, should be flossed since bacteria can grow between closely spaced teeth and make gums tender. Children who do their own flossing may find that a floss holder makes the task easier—and for parents who are helping, a holder can diminish the risk being bitten by those clean little chompers.
Flossing only helps if you do it right.
While brushing cleans the sticky plaque off most of the tooth, floss reaches where bristles cannot. But the sticky stuff stays if you have poor flossing technique. “The biggest mistake people make is that they just floss right down on their gums and back up,” says Dr. Harms. “You want to wrap the floss around the tooth and then, in a sawing motion, rub the floss up and down the tooth to remove the bacteria.” The American Dental Association has produced a helpful animation that demonstrates correct flossing technique.
If flossing makes your gums bleed, you’re on the right track.
Bleeding gums is not a signal to stop flossing—on the contrary, it’s a signal that you have gum disease and need to floss more. Unless you’re cutting into your gums with the floss, tenderness and bleeding are the result of bacteria having taken up residence between your teeth. And you get it out by flossing.
So even if you’re having visions of Marathon Man as that silky strand turns red, bear with it because you can actually cure a minor case of gum disease, or gingivitis, by flossing. Bleeding should subside after a few days of flossing. If it doesn’t, see your dentist.
Good oral health is a component of good overall health.
“Gum disease is really an infection in your mouth,” explains Dr. Harms. No infection is good for the body, especially in people whose capability to fight infection may be compromised by an illness such as diabetes or an immune disease. Some research has associated chronic gum disease with conditions including stroke, heart disease, and low birth weight in newborns (when the mother had gingivitis). While the theories suggest a systemic reaction to oral bacteria, Dr. Harms emphasizes that “no causal link has been established. We’re not saying that gum disease is a risk factor in any of these conditions yet.”
Any floss is better than no floss.
“The best floss is the one you’re going to use,” says Dr. Harms, who would like to see flossing become as routine as brushing. Adding to the passel of oral hygiene products already available, there is now a shelf in most every pharmacy dedicated to flossing products. Find the floss you like, whether it’s minty, flat, thick or covered in fluoride. Floss holders and disposable floss sticks have become popular, especially since they allow you to reach your molars without stuffing both hands in your mouth and stretching your lips like Silly Putty. According to Dr. Harms, “As long as you’re getting in there and removing that plaque, you can prevent gum disease and preserve your teeth for a lifetime.”
”Flossing” has been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Kimberly Harms, D.D.S., consumer adviser for the American Dental Association.
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