Does Flossing Actually Do Anything?

by Emma Cueto
Brush, rinse and floss
Charday Penn/E+/Getty Images

If you're one of the people who hates flossing, today is an early Christmas for you: New research apparently suggests that flossing has no benefits, which means we might not need to bother with it anymore. But before you toss your floss in the trash and say good riddance, it's worth pointing out that there isn't sufficient proof that flossing has no benefits at all, either. In fact, this same study suggests that there might be at least one important positive effect of flossing — although it is obvious that more research is needed before we can make any wide-reaching conclusions. Either way, though, we might not want to write flossing off altogether just yet.

Flossing was first proposed in modern times in 1815 by a New Orleans doctor, but it took a while to catch on. The first patent for dental floss wasn't issued until the 1890s. But by the mid 20th century, flossing was a widespread practice; most dentists began recommending that people floss once a day. In all the time that has passed since then, however, it seems no one bothered to do any serious research into whether or not flossing really does any good.

Until now, anyway. In a new study published in Nature , researchers looked at all the studies done in the past decade about the effectiveness of floss — which turns out to only be 12 studies, five of them with a high risk of bias and seven where the risk of bias was unclear. There were a total of 538 participants between the 12 studies, half of whom were instructed to only brush their teeth and half of whom were instructed to brush and floss. And when it came to fighting plaque build-up, it seems that there was no clear benefit to flossing.

In other words, the idea that flossing fights plaque is flimsy at best.

So should you throw out your floss and be on your merry way? Not quite. Although flossing doesn't seem to help with plaque, the study does say that "flossing plus toothbrushing showed a statistically significant benefit compared to toothbrushing in reducing gingivitis." Gingivitis is one of the most common forms of gum disease, so the results matter. On it's own, gingivitis isn't super serious — but it is super annoying, and it can lead to much more serious infections and and even, ultimately, to tooth loss.

Now, it's not clear how big an impact flossing might have on gingivitis — if anything, this study proves that we just don't know enough about the potential benefits or lack thereof of flossing to say anything about it yet. But if it's already part of your daily routine, I wouldn't ditch it just yet.

And, for what it's worth, the American Dental Association still stands by flossing, in spite of the new information. In a statement following the news, the association referred to flossing as "an essential part of taking care of your teeth and gums."

"Cleaning between teeth removes plaque that can lead to cavities or gum disease from the areas where a toothbrush can’t reach," an American Dental Association statement reads. "Interdental cleaning is proven to help remove debris between teeth that can contribute to plaque buildup."

The bottom line here is that flossing doesn't have enough science one way or the other. But while we wait for that to happen, it pays to be safe, rather than sorry. Dental floss is cheap, and flossing is easy and doesn't take up much time, so really, why not? Especially if it protects us from gingivitis.

Then again, it seems that most Americans aren't overly fond of flossing to begin with, and 20 percent of Americans already never floss. So who knows what this news will bring when it comes to the future of dental hygiene.

Images: Charday Penn/E+/Getty Images; Giphy (2)