Everyone knows that brushing your teeth is important for keeping them healthy and preventing dental disease, but many people still treat flossing as an optional extra in their daily routine.
Flossing reaches the parts of your mouth that toothbrushing can't. If you don't floss, up to half the surface area of your teeth isn't being cleaned and harmful bacteria will be free to build up.
It's never too late to get into good oral hygiene habits and lower your risks. Here's what you need to know about why, when and how to floss.
Why is flossing important?
Even if you brush your teeth thoroughly, a toothbrush can only clean three sides of the teeth – the front, back and chewing surfaces.
That leaves the edges of the teeth that touch together, which are just as vulnerable to decay, and the spaces between the teeth, which can trap leftover food and harbour bacteria.
Floss and other interdental cleaners can access these hard-to-reach areas to remove food and bacteria, helping you to avoid bad breath and more serious oral health problems, namely:
Tooth decay is caused by bacteria that build up on the teeth in a sticky layer known as plaque. These bacteria feed on sugar and other carbohydrates you consume and release acids as a by-product. These acids wear down the protective enamel surface of teeth, which can lead to toothache, sensitivity and cavities.
If plaque isn't removed by brushing and flossing, it can harden into calculus or tartar, which can only be removed by a dentist or hygienist. Teeth that have been damaged by decay can usually be repaired with a dental filling or crown, but more severely decayed teeth may need to be removed and replaced.
If plaque on your teeth builds up around the gums, it can infect or irritate the gum tissue. This causes an inflammation response in the body that can lead to red, swollen or painful gums. This is the early stage of gum disease, known as gingivitis.
Gingivitis can usually be treated through a combination of professional hygiene treatments and improving your daily oral care habits. If it's left untreated however, it can develop into more serious periodontitis. This can cause permanent damage to the teeth, gums and jaw and is one of the most common causes of tooth loss.
Tooth decay and gum disease can lead to more serious problems if they're not treated promptly. If bacteria reach the soft tissues at the centre of the tooth, this can cause a painful infection or inflammation. Root canal therapy may be necessary to remove the infection and restore the tooth.
Infections in teeth or gums may also cause a dental abscess, another cause of tooth loss. Gum disease can also increase your risk factor for a range of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal diseases, respiratory tract infection and other complications – so good oral hygiene is important for overall health.
How often should you floss?
For most people, flossing is recommended once a day, though your dentist may recommend flossing more often if you need to improve your oral health or if food and bacteria are prone to getting caught between your teeth.
Do kids need to floss?
Children's teeth are more vulnerable to decay than adult teeth, as their enamel is thinner and more easily so brushing and flossing are important preventive measures.
As with brushing, your child will need your help to floss until they're old enough to use the floss themselves. This could be a few years later than when they can use a toothbrush – usually around the age of 10 – as traditional floss requires more dexterity, though some alternatives such as a floss holder can make the task easier.
You should start flossing between your child's teeth as soon as they start to touch together. Your dentist can give you tailored advice about caring for your child's teeth at their regular check-up.
Types of floss and alternatives
If you or your kids don't like the feeling of flossing, there could be other options you find more comfortable or easier to use. These options include:
- Unwaxed floss – the most common type of dental floss, this thin floss can get into narrow crevices, but it's more prone to breaking
- Waxed floss – a smooth wax coating can make flossing gentler for sensitive teeth and gums, but you might not get such a thorough clean
- Dental tape – wider than standard floss, this may be recommended if you have more widely spaced teeth
- Floss holder or threader – pre-threaded floss can make flossing easier for children, beginner flossers or people with mobility issues
- Interdental brush – similar to a toothbrush that can get between your teeth, interdental cleaners are also easy to use, especially if you have braces
- Water flosser – a handheld electric flosser that sprays a steady stream of water to wash away debris from between your teeth
- Dental pick – soft plastic or rubber-tipped picks that clean between the teeth, these are easy to use, but may irritate the gums. You should avoid using wooden toothpicks to clean or remove food from your teeth, as these can damage the teeth or injure the gums.
Your dentist can give you more information or demonstrate these products in use so you can decide what's best for you or your child.
How to floss properly
To get the full benefits of daily flossing for your oral health, you need to know how to use it correctly. Your dentist can explain and demonstrate good techniques, depending on the type of floss you use.
For standard floss:
Step 1: Wind approximately 45cm of floss around the middle fingers of both hands and tear it off. Hold a short length between your thumbs and index fingers.
Step 2: Slide the floss between the first two teeth you want to clean. Gently move it from side to side if this helps to gain access.
Step 3: Clean up the side of one tooth. Start from the crown (the chewing or biting surface) up to the neck (where it meets the gum), then move down the opposite tooth.
Step 4: Repeat to clean all of your teeth. Flossing can take 2 to 3 minutes when you floss regularly, but for some people it can take up to 10 to 15 minutes.
Flossing with braces
Flossing with orthodontic braces can be more difficult, time-consuming and even frustrating, but it's important to keep your teeth and your braces themselves free from germs, food and odours.
Many people with braces find that floss alternatives such as a floss threader, interdental brush or water flosser are more convenient than traditional floss or tape, which may get stuck or fray on the appliance.
Take your time to clean gently, as exerting too much pressure could damage your braces or cause discomfort.
More ways to care for your teeth
As well as daily flossing, a good oral hygiene routine should also involve:
- Brushing your teeth at least twice a day for 2 minutes. You can use a timer or toothbrushing app to help you brush for the recommended time.
- Brushing gently using a soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid damaging your teeth or irritating your gums. Brushing straight after eating or drinking may also damage tooth enamel.
- Using fluoride toothpaste and drinking fluoridated tap water to help protect your teeth against plaque and decay.
- Drinking plenty of water, chewing sugar-free gum and eating crunchy fruit and vegetables. This helps to stimulate saliva that rinses your mouth and can neutralise plaque acids.
- Following a balanced diet rich in calcium and other vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that support your teeth and oral health.
- Limiting sugary and acidic food and drinks that contribute to tooth decay and erosion.
- Quitting smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation. These are risk factors for a range of oral health and general health problems.
- Using a mouthwash if this is recommended by your dentist. Avoid alcohol mouthwashes, as these can contribute to dry mouth.
- If you need to improve your oral health, your dentist may provide plaque disclosing tablets. These show you where you need to concentrate on improving your brushing and flossing.
- Visiting the dentist twice a year for an oral health assessment and professional hygiene treatments.
Australian Dental Association. Flossing [Online] 2017 [Accessed January 2022]
Healthdirect. Teeth cleaning [Online] 2020 [Accessed January 2022] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/teeth-cleaning