While more than half of Australians follow dentists' recommendations to brush their teeth twice a day, only 17 percent say they floss regularly, according to a survey by the Australian Dental Association.
If you've been treating flossing as an optional extra, you could be at higher risk of tooth decay, gum disease and related health problems. The good news is, it's never too late to improve your oral hygiene habits and lower the risks.
Read this guide from our Gold Coast dentists to find out more about why flossing matters, advice on when and how to floss and answers to frequently asked questions.
Why is flossing important?
If you don't brush and floss regularly, bacteria can build up on the teeth and form a layer of plaque. This bacteria feeds on sugar and starch and releases acids that can wear down tooth enamel and expose the sensitive layers of teeth underneath. This is commonly known as tooth decay.
If plaque reaches the gum line, it can also cause gum disease. The early stage of gum disease, gingivitis, can cause the gums to swell, feel more sensitive and sometimes bleed when brushed. Gum disease is a risk factor for a number of serious health problems and can lead to tooth loss if it's not treated and develops into more serious periodontitis.
Teeth brushing alone isn't enough to remove all plaque and leftover food from your teeth. That's because your toothbrush is limited in where it can reach. If you brush but don't floss, you're leaving two sides of every tooth (the sides that touch their neighbouring teeth) and almost half the surface area of your teeth untouched, so flossing as a cornerstone of preventive care.
As well as causing tooth decay and gum disease, bacteria and leftover food trapped between teeth can also contribute to bad breath (halitosis). If you often suffer from bad breath, daily flossing could make a difference.
When should I floss?
While most dentists recommend brushing your teeth twice a day, most people only need to floss once a day. This can be done any time that works for you – ideally when you're not too tired, so have the focus and energy needed to floss correctly. Dentists may recommend more frequent flossing if you need to improve your oral health, but flossing too often can irritate or even damage gums.
Flossing usually takes around two minutes, but it can take longer if you're flossing for the first time or flossing with braces. Most people floss at the same time they brush their teeth, either in the morning or at night. It doesn't make a significant difference whether you floss before brushing or vice versa, the ideal order comes down to individual preference.
There's no age limit to flossing. It's recommended that parents start to floss between their baby's teeth as soon as they have two teeth that touch together. You should continue to help children floss until around the age of 10, by which time they should have the coordination and patience to do it themselves.
How to floss
Some people avoid flossing or give up on their first attempt because they don't know the correct technique. Flossing isn't complicated, but getting advice and a demonstration from your dentist could help you to feel more confident that you're doing it properly.
Follow these 6 steps for simple flossing:
- Wind approximately 45cm of floss around one of your middle fingers and tie it to the middle finger of the opposite hand, then snap it off the dispenser. This is the average length of floss you need for one session.
- Holding the floss between your thumbs and index fingers, gently insert it between two of your teeth against one side. Using a gentle side-to-side motion, move along the side of the tooth towards the gum line.
- When you reach the gum, carefully slide the floss under to clean the 'necks' of the teeth.
- Clean side-to-side along the opposite tooth from the gum to the crown.
- Transfer the used floss to your opposite middle finger and hold a fresh length between your fingers for the next teeth.
- Repeat steps 2 to 5 to clean the rest of your teeth.
Once you're used to flossing, it should take around two minutes to clean between all of your teeth. Avoid reusing the same length of floss across different teeth, as this can spread bacteria around your mouth.
Alternatives to floss
If you don't like the way traditional string floss feels, or you find it hard to use, your dentist could recommend other options that are a better fit for you. These could include:
- floss holders or picks with a plastic handle
- interdental brushes for teeth with wider gaps
- electric flossers that use jets of water to clean between teeth
It's not recommended to use wooden toothpicks or any sharp objects to clean between your teeth. These can damage tooth enamel or injure gums and other soft tissues in your mouth, which could lead to infections.
Am I too old to start flossing?
Even if you've gone your whole life without flossing, it's never too late to start and give your teeth the thorough clean they deserve. Many people don't begin flossing until their dentist recommends it to help manage an oral health problem. Once they're used to it, it can become part of their normal routine.
Flossing does take a little time to get used to, if you've never done it before or it's been a long time since you last flossed. If your gums aren't used to being touched, flossing could feel irritating the first few times or even cause bleeding if you're not gentle enough, but you and your mouth should soon adjust.
Is it normal for gums to bleed when flossing?
If you're not used to flossing, there is a risk of gums bleeding. This can also happen if you floss too roughly, too quickly or hold the floss too tight across your fingers. Flossing hard won't get your teeth any cleaner, and the time you'll save isn't worth painful or bleeding gums.
If your gums continue to bleed even when you're flossing normally, you should talk to your dentist for advice. If you have sensitive gums, your dentist may recommend an alternative such as a water flosser that avoids direct contact with the gums. Bleeding gums may also be a symptom of gingivitis, which can usually be reversed with fluoride treatments and improving your oral hygiene.
Can I floss if I have braces?
Flossing can be especially useful if you have orthodontic braces, since there are more spaces where your toothbrush won't reach and where bacteria and food can get trapped. The downside is that flossing with braces is usually more challenging and time-consuming, especially as you have to be cautious not to dislodge or damage the brace.
If you find using traditional floss too difficult or fiddly, your dentist or orthodontist may recommend using an alternative such as a floss threader, interdental brush or water pick.
Can I floss if I'm missing teeth?
If you have gaps in your smile where teeth have fallen out or been extracted, these areas can still benefit from flossing to clean away any bacteria or debris that your toothbrush didn't catch.
If you've had one or more teeth replaced with a dental implant, dental bridge or denture, these artificial teeth should also be flossed or cleaned thoroughly to protect the surrounding teeth and gums, as well as to remove any leftover food that could cause bad breath.
More tips to prevent gum disease
To help combat plaque, regular flossing should be part of an overall oral hygiene routine. Dentists also recommend:
- Teeth brushing – ideally twice a day, unless your dentist recommends more frequent brushing. Electric and manual toothbrushes can both provide the same level of cleaning, depending on which you find most comfortable. Choose a brush with soft or medium bristles and use fluoride toothpaste.
- Tongue cleaning – bacteria can also build up on the tongue, which can cause bad breath. Clean your tongue using the back of a manual toothbrush or a specialised tongue scraper.
- Healthy diet – try to avoid sugary and acidic food and drink to prevent tooth decay and acid wear. A healthy diet rich in calcium and vitamins can help to remineralise tooth enamel. Tap water containing fluoride will help you stay hydrated and protect your teeth.
- Mouthwash – not everyone needs to use mouthwash. Your dentist may recommend it if they think you need to improve your oral health. Alcohol mouthwashes are not considered safe for children, due to the risk of swallowing.
- Regular hygiene appointments – visit your dentist every 6 to 12 months so they can spot any signs of problems, professionally clean and scale your teeth and give you advice about looking after your oral health.
Make an appointment with a Gold Coast dentist
If you have any questions about how to take care of your teeth or your family's teeth, contact our team at Robina Town Dental. We'll schedule an appointment at a convenient time to give you a thorough check-up and clean and any advice you need about improving your oral health.
Australian Dental Association. Dental Health Week Event Handbook [Online] 2017 [Accessed April 2020] Available from: https://www.ada.org.au/Dental-Health-Week/Resources/DHW-Assests/DHW17_EventHandbook_01062017
Australian Dental Association. Flossing [Online] 2017 [Accessed April 2020] Available from: https://www.ada.org.au/Your-Dental-Health/Younger-Adults-18-30/flossing
Healthdirect. Teeth cleaning [Online] 2018 [Accessed April 2020] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/teeth-cleaning