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Should You Toss the Floss?

flossGood oral hygiene practices include brushing and flossing – even though many Americans skip flossing altogether. New research makes claims that it is just fine, as flossing may not be as important as once thought. Dentists, however, are saying don’t toss that floss just yet.

Early last year, to the dismay of many dentists and the American Dental Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services removed the mention of flossing from their recommended dietary and health guidelines over concerns that there was no proven evidence of its benefits.

However, the ADA and dentists maintain that flossing is indeed important to the protection of the teeth and gums. Flossing helps to prevent tooth decay and periodontal infections by removing particles and bits of food that are left behind on teeth after eating. These particles can also be left behind after brushing –as toothbrushes are not always able to reach into the spaces between the teeth, especially teeth that are very tightly together.

When food particles are left behind, they begin to break down in the mouth. Sugars are created as a byproduct of this breakdown, and these sugars feed bacteria that live in the mouth. These bacteria attack the teeth and gums, causing tooth decay, gingivitis and other forms of periodontal gum disease. When leftover food particles break down in the mouth, they also cause bad breath.

“When leftover food particles aren’t brushed or flossed away, things begin to happen,” says Dr. Stefania Caracioni, D.D.S., L.V.I.F. Caracioni is a dentist offering preventative dental treatments and cosmetic dental services, such as tooth whitening and smile restoration at her Topeka, Kansas, dental office. “The first thing is that bad bacteria begin to grow and multiply quickly in the sticky plaque that covers the teeth.”

“When this plaque is not brushed or flossed away through regular brushing, gingivitis develops. Gingivitis is the painful inflammation and redness of the gums and can progress to gum disease and infections. These infections can result in the loss of the teeth, gum tissue, and even bone if left untreated,” explains Caracioni. Severe infections impact a patient’s overall health, causing cardiovascular problems, stroke, and even early onset dementia.

The anti-flossing camp says that despite the fact that patients are at risk of developing gingivitis as a result of skipping floss and poor oral hygiene habits, gingivitis is not all that serious. Dentists like Caracioni balk at this claim because gingivitis is the gateway to more serious health complications. “Skipping flossing and missing brushing a few times here and there is not going to fast forward a patient right to tooth loss, but continued bad habits and skipping these critical steps regularly may mean a serious dental condition that could be prevented,” cautions Caracioni.

The American Dental Association and Caracioni recommend flossing at least once per day and brushing at least twice per day. Flossing helps to prevent plaque from calcifying into tartar, a hard substance that can cover the teeth and the spaces between them. Regular flossing can also reduce bleeding gums and swelling.

To floss or not to floss isn’t the only question about flossing. Another popular question regarding flossing is also when is the best time to floss; before or after brushing. According to Caracioni, it doesn’t matter. “When you floss is entirely up to you, your dentist just cares that you do it,” she says.

It also doesn’t matter what kind of floss you use. There are several varieties; waxed, unwaxed, plain or flavored. There are also several alternatives to floss as well, including dental picks and water flossers, like the Waterpik. Patients are encouraged to ask their dental practitioner what type of floss or floss alternative they recommend. “Also, ask your dentist to demonstrate a proper flossing technique, to ensure you are flossing correctly at home,” says Caracioni.