Dental hygienists and dentists – plus everyone from the Department of Health and Human Services to the American Dental Association – have for decades recommended daily flossing to keep your mouth and teeth healthy. But a new report from the Associated Press (AP) indicates that there may be no medical benefits associated with flossing.
Does that mean we can quit flossing? Are we finally free from the tedium and annoyance of this personal hygiene chore?
Just because there’s no scientific evidence that flossing is effective doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ineffective. But how can that be, you ask? Because no one has spent the money and time necessary to do an in-depth research study on flossing.
The AP Investigation on Flossing
The AP requested that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide evidence to back up claims that flossing has medical benefits. The agencies did not have the data to back up any claims regarding the need to floss. In a letter to the AP, the government acknowledged that the long touted benefits of flossing are not properly backed up by scientific research.
The AP also noted that in the agencies’ updated national dietary guidelines, all suggestions to floss had been removed.
The AP reviewed five analyses of 25 studies comparing the use of a toothbrush versus the use of a toothbrush and floss and found that the data supporting the health benefits of flossing is “very unreliable” and of “very low” quality. One study review conducted last year found that “The majority of available studies fail to demonstrate that flossing is generally effective in plaque removal.”
The AP reporters noted that many flossing recommendations are based on now-outdated testing methods, and utilized a test group that was too small to provide statistically reliable evidence.
Dental floss was invented by Dentist Levi Spear Parmly in 1815, although some historians believe that people were using horse hair and similar items to floss, along with twigs as toothpicks, back in prehistoric times. The ADA has been encouraging people to floss since 1908.
So What Now?
A spokesperson for the American Dental Association, Dr. Matthew Messina, agreed with the AP’s claim about the dismal quality of research supporting the benefits of flossing. But Dr. Messina, and the ADA, still insist that flossing is a very effective way to remove food debris from between the teeth.
“There’s only so many research dollars and so much research effort,” he said. “So not a lot of effort has been put into the study of dental flossing, just simply because there are other more important things for us to do.”
“Nobody’s done a study to say that using a parachute jumping out of an airplane is safer than not using a parachute,” Messina continued. “I’m still going to use a parachute, because we just know that that’s going to work. It’s all about putting it into perspective.”
Toothpicks, Waterpiks and interdental cleaners are likely to be effective too, and are – for now – likely to be a better option than not flossing at all.
Whether you floss or not, you do need to get regular professional cleanings. Even people who are super-dedicated to good oral hygiene will inevitably miss a bit of plaque here and there, which can harden into tartar. Removing tartar is not something that you can do at home, without risking the chance that you’ll cause more dental damage with abrasive toothpastes, scarping and whatever other insane DIY dentistry trick YouTube may be recommending today. Dental hygienists know how to remove the gunk that causes decay and gum infections safely.
If you’ve been skipping regular professional cleanings due to budget concerns, check your dental insurance policy. Many cover cleanings and checkups 100% – so there’s no cost to get regular preventive care. No insurance? Have a look at dental savings plans, the affordable alternative to traditional dental insurance, were designed to make dental care affordable for everyone. Plan members save 10%-60% on the typical cost of dental care and treatments at a nationwide network of more than 100,000 dentists. Many dental savings plans also cover the total cost of regular checkups and cleanings, or provide big discounts on these services.
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