Flossing: good, bad or just pointless?

In the past few weeks an investigation conducted by the Associated Press (AP) caused the US Government to acknowledge that “the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched,” which raised many questions, the most obvious being: “So, should we floss or not?”

The effectiveness of flossing is now under attack according to a study conducted by the Associated Press (credit: Shutterstock)

The effectiveness of flossing is now under attack according to a study conducted by the Associated Press (credit: Shutterstock)

Before digging into the ‘issue’ let’s have a look at the facts. Flossing started to be promoted by the American Dental Association in 1908. It was invented by Levi Spear Parmly in the early 1800s with the first patent appearing in 1874. Dentists have encouraged the practice ever since, with flossing becoming an official, world-standard recommendation in 1979. However, last June the US Government issued the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which – with much surprise – did not include anymore the advice to ‘floss every day’. The missed inclusion spurred a lot of noise in the news with many start jumping on the wagon of ‘throwing away the so much hated spools of waxed dental tapes.’ (Yep, some people, it seems, hate flossing so much that they would rather clean a toilet!)

What is important to notice here is not that flossing has all of a sudden become ‘bad’; rather, the investigation conducted by the Associated Press (AP) showed the lack of evidence about its beneficial effects. It might still have such benefits, but they have not been proven with compelling evidence. The existing studies on the matter are ‘unreliable’ and ‘low-quality’ as they do not involve a large-enough number of cases and/or long-enough trials. Also, for those out there after the latest conspiracy, currently in the US the studies backing the benefits of flossing are directly funded by Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, which happen to be two of the major floss producers in the States.

So, is flossing good, bad or pointless? Admittedly according to the AP investigation, if done improperly, flossing can cause damage to gums, teeth and dental work, as well as lead to infections by causing harmful bacteria to be released into the bloodstream. However if done correctly, cleaning the space between the teeth – which does not have to be done necessarily with floss, inter-dental brushes or toothpicks are potentially as good – is beneficial. After all, as US National Institutes of Health dentist Tim Iafolla says: “It’s low risk, low cost. We know there is a possibility that it works so we feel comfortable telling people to go ahead and do it.”

So until proper research is done, go ahead and floss… or not.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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