Have You Seen My Floss?

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Flossing image
Image Courtesy of Carol Coogan

Year after year, I listen to admirable New Year’s resolutions from friends and family, some of which are almost inspiring enough to follow. But, recently, when “flossing” topped a friend’s 2017 “to do” list, it got me wondering if this heinous daily practice is actually even necessary.

Typically, the last reminder to patients before they spring from the dental chair is about flossing. The hygienist may have told you, “You’re not digging into those godforsaken molar pockets hard enough with the string!” Or maybe you’ve heard you’re just a “bad flosser” altogether. As if the estimate for a new bridge or an upcoming root canal were not enough, now you have an “F” in Gum Health 101!

Conventional dental logic claims that daily flossing is necessary to prevent cavities—which l have a mouthful of, along with my lifetime record of flossing—and to keep your gum line in place, so you don’t have to make that appointment for dentures. Scare tactics prevail, and some patients follow the advice wholesale, flossing daily or, perhaps even more diligently, after each meal. After all, who wants to lose their teeth? We need them to crunch down our favorite organic tortilla chips and grass-fed beef, breaking free more flavors with each and every chew.

However, what if flossing is actually a waste of your time? Well, it just might be. According to dental health guidelines released by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in late 2016, flossing is no longer a recommended daily practice.

After decades, the once-sage advice to run that dirty string between your teeth and up against your gums each day appears to have no real merit. Some studies have revealed that flossing does not necessarily prevent cavities, much less the onset of periodontal disease. The New York Times cites The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews as finding little evidence that flossing as a repeated practice after eating reduces plaque. The results of flossing studies simply do not suggest that if patients floss regularly it will help prevent cavities or tooth decay. And, in many cases, the opposite may actually be true. Those of us who are really on a flossing mission (or making good on a New Year’s resolution) can cause more harm than good by damaging gums and teeth, and sometimes may even dislodge those precious fillings.

So, it seems the flossing argument has entered the same nebulous arena as the caffeine-in-your-coffee admonishments (and praises) and the cholesterol-in-your-morning-eggs warnings (and promotion). On this one, I’m sticking with my dentist’s advice to keep up with daily flossing. At some point, you have to go your own way and make a bold decision on your daily practices. Plus, out of deep respect for my dental hygienist, who has the thankless job of scraping the plaque and tartar off my teeth every six months, I will listen to the old school advice to floss, based on this rationality: Plaque leads to bacteria and bacteria lead to inflammation. Whatever tools you have at your disposal to fight against this process—even if it means pulling a string between your teeth a few times a week—should probably be part of a preventive solution to avoid a root canal or, worse, the dreaded dentures.

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Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.