Ask the doctor
Q. I read recently that there is no evidence that flossing prevents cavities or gum disease. Is there any reason to keep on doing it?
A. You’re right. There have been no studies in which volunteers were randomly assigned to two groups—one to floss daily and one to refrain from flossing—where the groups were followed over time to see whether those who flossed had lower rates of cavities and gum disease. At the same time, there have been no randomized controlled studies of smoking, but it’s very clear that smoking is a health hazard.
Multiple experts and organizations, including the U.S. Surgeon General, the CDC, and the American Dental Association (ADA), continue to recommend using dental floss—or another device—to clean between teeth at least once a day. Health experts also advise brushing for two minutes twice a day—another practice with no controlled studies to support its recommendation.
That’s not to say that there isn’t science behind brushing and flossing. Research has demonstrated that food particles attract bacteria that form plaque, which results in tooth decay and gum disease. Both activities—brushing to remove particles and bacteria from the surfaces of your teeth and gum line and using floss or another device to clean spaces between teeth—help to remove plaque.
If you don’t like to floss, you might want to look into using interdental brushes or invest in a device to stream water or air between your teeth. The ADA says they are reasonable alternatives to dental floss.
— by Hope Ricciotti, M.D., and Hye-Chun Hur, M.D., M.P.H.
Editors in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch