Let’s be real for a minute: We’ve all lied to our dentist, and more often than not, it’s probably to answer the question “How often do you floss?”
Every since I was old enough to feel shame over not flossing regularly, I’ve skirted around that question with vague answers like “ummm every other day?” that none of my dentists have actually believed and consistently call me out on.
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But as it turns out, following an investigation just released by the Associated Press, maybe I didn’t need to feel so guilty this whole time after all.
The AP reviewed 25 pieces of research conducted over the past decade that compared teeth and gum health of brushing and flossing versus only brushing, and concluded that the studies failed to demonstrate that flossing is actually beneficial to oral health. There are no studies that show flossing (combined with brushing) is more effective for cavity prevention, and a series of studies in 2011 found “very unreliable” evidence that flossing helps with plaque reduction. Furthermore, any studies that did show that flossing helped remove plaque have been discredited, and the AP revealed, were conducted on behalf of and paid for by two major floss producers: Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson.
The federal government has officially recommended flossing since 1979, but under law, any official government guidelines must be backed up by scientific evidence. Last year the AP asked the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, which issues the recommendation, to produce their evidence. This year, the federal government quietly removed their flossing recommendation without any notice.
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Dentists, however, are not so fast to drop their recommendation.
“I would say that while long-term studies have not been completed to determine the negative effects of not flossing, the anecdotal evidence of hundreds of years of professional dental treatment have indicated that the mechanic removal of dental plague from between the teeth and under the gums can only improve your breath, decrease your likelihood of cavities and reduce your chances of getting gum disease,” says New York cosmetic dentist Timothy Chase, DMD. He adds, “I’m pretty sure the long-term studies of bathing with soap have not been held up to scientific standards either, but I wouldn’t suggest not doing it.”
“Over the many years, dentists and hygienists—those on the front lines of dental care—have accumulated their own ‘data’ regarding flossing,” says Beverly Hills cosmetic dentist Katherine Ahn, DDS. “My guess is that the cumulative observation on the part of the entire dental profession —clinicians on the front lines, not scientists in the labs and behind computer screens—has led to the overwhelming conclusion that flossing, in conjunction with proper brushing, is beneficial.”
“The entire ‘controversy’ also assumes that plaque removal (and for that matter, decay prevention in between the teeth) are the only reasons for flossing.” Dr. Ahn adds. “The fact is, food particles and foreign objects can, and often do, get embedded under the gums, often in between the teeth where a toothbrush alone is unable to reach and dislodge. As anyone who has had a piece of food or a non-disolvable foreign object stuck under their gum can tell you, it is not a pleasant experience. It can lead, in the case of the foreign object, to intense gum inflammation and even degradation of surrounding bone, if left unattended.”
In response to the news, the American Dental Association issued a statement maintaining that interdental cleaning is still an “essential part of taking care of your teeth and gums.” Whether that means floss or another technique (water floss or interdental brushes), the ADA claims that “cleaning between teeth removes plaque that can lead to cavities or gum disease from the areas where a toothbrush can’t reach. Interdental cleaning is proven to help remove debris between teeth that can contribute to plaque buildup.”
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But back to the anecdotal stuff. Government recommendations and scientific studies aside, every time I floss, I—without fail—remove something that can only be described as gunk from the crevices between my teeth. And I’ll even go as far to say that, that sometimes when there’s irritation on my gum line, flossing does seem to take care of the problem. So despite all the hoopla, I’m committed to continuing to floss. I may no longer have to feel as bad about forgetting to floss, but I still feel great every time I do.
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