No doubt your dentist has told you time and again that you should be flossing at least once a day. Are you one of the 30% of Americans who actually follows this recommended daily regimen? Are you part of the 20% that doesn’t floss at all? Or do you fall somewhere in between? If you belong to one of the latter two groups, keep reading – you might find a solution you can stick to.

Why should I floss?

Flossing can greatly reduce the risk of gum disease and tooth decay by removing plaque that toothbrushes don’t reach. The early stages of plaque and bacterial accumulation cause the pain and inflammation known as gingivitis (bleeding gums are also a common symptom). When plaque sits on your teeth long enough, it hardens into tartar which must be professionally removed, and can lead to gum disease (aka periodontal disease or periodontitis), which is an incurable chronic condition. With gum disease, bacteria eats away at the gum tissue causing problems like gum recession, abscess, bone degeneration, and tooth loss.

There is also mounting research to suggest that dental plaque may be linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s, and that these bacteria can travel to the brain, heart, and other parts of the body.

What are my options for flossing and tartar control?

Top-Tier Methods:

1. Traditional dental floss

Done right, this is the most effective (though perhaps also the most annoying) way to remove plaque and maintain healthy gums. The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends starting out with a piece of string about 18” long and wrapping the ends around the middle finger of each hand. This allows you to hold the floss between your thumb and forefinger as you move it between your teeth, working your way down the length of the string. Should you buy waxed? Flavored? This is a personal preference and will not change the efficacy of the floss in any way. Check out this step-by-step guide or video from the ADA to make sure you’ve got your technique down.

Traditional flossing is regarded as the best method because:

  1. You are putting a clean segment of the string between each pair of teeth, which means you are removing bacteria and not redistributing it.
  2. This technique provides the most fine control. You should be pressing the floss against the side of your tooth so that it curves snugly, and gently moving the string up and down.
  3. If your teeth are particularly close together, this may be the only option besides water flossing that will work for you.

Your gums may bleed a little when you start a new flossing habit – a result of gingivitis – but flossing should never be painful. Whatever implement you use, try to slide it gently between your teeth and avoid slicing your gums.

2. Water Flossers

The next best alternative to traditional dental floss is water flossing, again because this does not redistribute bacteria like other methods. There are a lot of brands out there, but Waterpik and Phillips are the only two listed on the ADA website as having earned the ADA Seal of Acceptance, meaning they are scientifically proven to remove plaque. A great option for people with braces or extensive dental work.

Go to healthymouth.org to see a list of all ADA accepted items and search by product or category.

Other flossing options:

Any type of flossing you choose is beneficial, but we are including a small caveat with these: when you use the same tool to clean between all of your teeth, you run the risk of redistributing plaque and food particles around your teeth and mouth. It is possible to mitigate the spread of particles or bacteria by washing the chosen implement as you go or swishing with antiseptic mouthwash after you floss.

3. Interdental brushes

These are thin, straight brushes meant to be inserted between the teeth. They are very similar to a pipe cleaner in appearance and construction, but come with a handle attached for ease of use. You can find disposable and reusable varieties in a range of sizes to accommodate differences in tooth spacing. There are many brands and styles of interdental brushes available at pharmacies, grocery stores, and other common shopping locations.

4. Floss picks

Floss picks usually consist of a small plastic handle with a piece of floss suspended at one end. They usually come in bags of 30 or more and are intended for a single use. If you appreciate the convenience of floss picks but are concerned about creating plastic waste, there are many biodegradable models on the market as well, and even refillable options.

5. Wooden floss sticks

Think of these little devices as toothpick 2.0 – flat, tapered wooden sticks for inserting between the teeth. Surprisingly, there aren’t many varieties of this particular product available. The easiest to track down are Stim-U-Dent brand.

Alternative/Additional Plaque Control Methods:

6. Sonic toothbrushes

If you just can’t make yourself floss, consider getting a sonic toothbrush. With tens of thousands of brush strokes a minute, they can remove 4-5x the amount of plaque as a regular brush. Many of these electric brushes also include a timer that will encourage you to brush the full two minutes recommended by dental health professionals.

What’s the difference between a sonic toothbrush and a regular electric toothbrush? The number of brush strokes per minute. Electric toothbrushes operate in a range of about 2,000 – 8,000 strokes a minute, while their sonic counterparts offer a range of 30,000 – 40,000 strokes a minute. Either one is superior to manual brushing.

7. Antiseptic mouthwash

Rinsing up to four times a day with an antiseptic mouthwash of your choice is a great addition to any oral care regimen. Not only will swishing help wash away unwanted debris, it will also kill bacteria that are not removed by brushing alone. Some mouth bacteria, however, form part of a healthy immune system, so this is something to consider when choosing a product – it may be preferable to use a medium-potency wash vs. something that aims to eliminate as many bacteria as possible. Aloe vera-based products are a good option for people with particularly sensitive mouths or those looking for a natural solution.