It’s strange to even be asking this question, given the fact that most of us have heard our dentists and hygienists recommending flossing every time we ask – and often even when we don’t. But due to a recent story published by the Associated Press (which was subsequently picked up by media outlets worldwide, where it was hyped and sensationalized and turned into feature stories with click-baiting headlines), the effectiveness of flossing has been brought into question.
Read on to find our take on flossing, and on the story that produced the media hype.
First, let’s understand what happened.
The Associated Press (AP) asked US federal departments to show them the evidence used for producing the guidelines, such as the surgeon general’s, which recommend flossing. When the government responded that the recommendations weren’t based on research, AP decided to perform its own study by looking for research from the past decade, and wrote their article which focused on 25 studies that “generally compared the use of a toothbrush with the combination of toothbrushes and floss.”
The conclusion of AP’s study, contained in their article, is that the evidence for flossing is “weak, very unreliable,” of “very low” quality, and carries “a moderate to large potential for bias.” (source)
So, to sum it up, none of the 25 studies (limited to those conducted in the past decade) which AP reviewed provided strong evidence for the recommendations which have been in place several decades
With this narrow scope of review, AP produced an article that undoubtedly brought them a lot of revenues from the use and re-use of their story, through royalties and licensing. With the click-baiting title of “Medical benefits of dental floss unproven” they were able to capitalize on the media’s penchant to traffic in flavour-of-the-week medical stories, and as so often happens, many in the public saw or heard it without sufficient context.
As a result, the public were treated to the usual sensational stories that featured news anchors jovially announcing that they felt vindicated for not flossing, or suggesting that there was possibly a nefarious reason for dentists to have been recommending flossing in the first place. And as a consequence, the very real and very earnest recommendations of dentists and other dental professionals, were tossed into the mill as fodder for this spasm of so-called reporting.
Unfortunately, what this also achieved was to erode the reputation of one of the cornerstones of common sense dental hygiene practices and, potentially worse, to undercut the perception of trustworthiness for dental health practitioners to their patients.
Not to mention that, as noted by Kara Vavrosky, RDH, AP’s claim there were “no studies that show the benefits of flossing” is “patently false” based on research she was able to easily locate. Vavrosky concludes that “AP’s research was biased,” and that AP was “negligent to report such bias to the greater public.” (source)
Take the F out of floss and you get loss
So, what is the average person to make of this? Is flossing still recommended by dental professionals?
The short and easy answer is, YES!
We polled some of our dentists and received loads of responses and comments. Most common was a sense of shock and disbelief that people’s dental health could be placed in jeopardy by such reckless reporting of what many would call a non-story.
Here’s a sampling of their comments:
- Dentists don’t make money from flossing – in fact, they give it away because they believe in it.
- Take the F out of floss and you get loss.
- Dentists and hygienists are going to keep flossing.
- The current studies questioning the benefits of flossing are incomplete. Flossing definitely reduces the number of harmful bacteria, prevents cavities between teeth where tooth brushes cannot reach, and massages the gums.
- One or two studies may suggest flossing is not effective, but a few hundred suggest it has definite benefits. Don’t be quick to believe the hype.
So, it may not be a surprise to you that dental professionals are continuing to recommend flossing. But don’t discount that recommendation because it’s predictable. It’s predictable for a reason. If you’re skeptical, that’s fine. Just do some research yourself.
Maybe even ask your friends. You’d be surprised how many people floss regularly because they recognize personal benefits – in other words, they don’t need to be told to floss, and are not going to stop simply because of this news story.
And keep in mind what the professionals are saying in response to this media hype:
The Canadian Dental Association statement of August 2, 2016:
The Canadian Dental Association supports flossing as one step of maintaining healthy teeth and gums. Flossing is an effective preventative measure to remove plaque, the main cause of gum disease. The weakness of the evidence supporting the value of floss in the prevention of gum disease is a reflection of the difficulty of conducting the necessary studies, not of the value of flossing for the maintenance of good oral health.
Brushing, flossing, eating a healthy diet, and seeing your dentist regularly are all steps in preserving a healthy mouth.
The American Dental Association statement of August 4, 2016:
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), interdental cleaners such as floss are an essential part of taking care of your teeth and gums. Cleaning between teeth removes plaque that can lead to cavities or gum disease in the areas where a toothbrush can’t reach. Interdental cleaning is proven to help remove debris between teeth that can contribute to plaque buildup.
So after all the confusion, the message remains the same. Brush, floss, eat healthy foods, and see your dentist regularly. That’s the 1-2-3-4 of ensuring the best dental health.