Refuting The Great Dental Floss Slander


I’m appalled, utterly – and mystified. Brits are walking around with smug grins on their faces. It’s the sort of, “I told you so” grin an elder sibling might wear when, as a kid, you’d try to walk along the top of a narrow wall just to prove you could do it, and the elder one would say, “Get down, you’ll fall off.” You did, and there was the grin, smug and knowing, while you picked the gravel out of your knee.

Brits can be a bit smug at the best of times. It comes from once having an empire and pretending it’s still there. But this is different. They now have proof they were right all along. Science has proved it, or so they think.

When I was a kid my mother was strict about teeth cleaning. Twice a day, morning and bedtime, my sister and I were marched to the bathroom for this ablutive ritual. It worked. All my life I’ve brushed religiously twice a day, happy in the knowledge I was doing the best I could for my teeth. Sadly, my pearlies never reciprocated. Toothache, painful dentist visits, cavities galore, even, one girlfriend eventually admitted, bad breath. How shaming!

This sad orthodontic plight persisted on and off for fifty years or so, until I eventually moved to the United States and married the present Mrs R J. I was surprised to find large quantities of dental floss in her bathroom cabinet.

“Do you really use that stuff?” I exclaimed, fingering the small round plastic pack, as one might if it had been labeled, ‘Nitroglycerine’.

“Of course, and you should too, darling. It would help with your tooth problem – and,” she smiled demurely, “your other little problem.”

“What tooth prob…and what other little problem?” I was becoming irate. Was this woman telling me I was less than perfect in her eyes? We’d just got married, for God’s sake!

“Well,” she took my hand, “you do sometimes have bad breath, you know…” I snatched my hand away, “…not always,” she continued hastily, “just sometimes…and it’s not really bad…just a little bit.”

That was how I began a regular flossing routine. Just once a day, in the morning after breakfast. I was also ‘persuaded’ to visit my wife’s dentist and have the ravages of fifty year’s Mars bars and chip suppers repaired. A couple of crowns and four ‘fillings’ later I was as good as new. Well, dentally, at least.

Fifteen years later, I can honestly say I’ve never had a problem with my teeth since. My wife doesn’t hesitate to kiss me any more, and as we can’t get decent dental floss in France, we import our favourite brand from America.

Well, okay, I’ll hold up my hand and admit the first sentence of that last paragraph isn’t quite accurate. A few months before we came to France I began to suffer pain from my back teeth. Fearful of molar decay, I visited an elderly dentist in our local town to be checked out. He took X-rays, poked around as dentists do, and finally concluded that I was fine. “It’s just a slight gum recession, inevitable at your age,” he said,”I have a similar problem myself. Try one of those toothpastes that deaden it. That works for me.” Then he added, “You have very good teeth for a man of your age. I see you floss regularly.”

I was surprised, “How can you tell?”

He smiled and showed me the X-ray of my mouth, “Look, between every tooth you have a clean gap. That’s the floss gap. People who don’t floss regularly don’t have such a well-defined gap. Plaque builds between the teeth and closes that gap leaving the side of the tooth vulnerable to disease. Most cavities we dentists see begin there, in the side of the tooth rather than the back or front.”

This was from a man who’d been a dentist all his working life, and he was seventy-two. He was right about my gums. The pain went away after a few day’s use with a deadening toothpaste.

The British (and possibly the French as well, judging from the lack of good quality floss in their stores) have always shied away from flossing. It’s why so many of them suffer from bad breath. I know, I was one until I joined Halitosis Anonymous and elected Mrs R J as my mentor. It’s no myth that the British have always had more dental problems than the Americans, and U.S. dental treatment is even more expensive than in the U.K., with virtually no cover from standard medical insurance policies.

For reasons unfathomed, The Associated Press recently decided to wage war against tooth flossing. There’s no scientific evidence it does any good, they decided. This is quite true, but it’s also a fact that there’s no scientific evidence it doesn’t. They approached the U.S. government.

The federal government has recommended flossing since 1979, first in a surgeon general’s report and later in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued every five years. The guidelines must be based on scientific evidence, under the law. Last year, the Associated Press asked the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture for their evidence, and followed up with written requests under the Freedom of Information Act…

Why would they do that? The “Freedom of Information Act?” Can dental floss be used to make a terrorist’s bomb?

When the federal government issued its latest dietary guidelines this year, the flossing recommendation had been removed, without notice. In a letter to the AP, the government acknowledged the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched, as required. [my bold] [1]

Okay, so any studies done have been unscientific and incomplete, but that’s no reason to condemn a product that’s been in use for over a century. Many, however, think it is, including one British dentist, Ollie Jupes, who wrote to the Guardian about it:

In Britain we’ve long known about the futility of floss, and now Americans have brushed up on their science, too. As a health measure, it simply doesn’t work. The fact is, the British dental profession gave floss a quiet burial years ago after sneaking it out the back and finishing it off humanely with a lump-hammer. Yes, in the UK we realised ages ago that – and if you still religiously floss daily, look away now – flossing simply doesn’t work as a health measure (or a fetish).

Let me say that again. FLOSS DOES NOT WORK. Not at all. There’s not a shred of evidence that it does any good whatsoever. I mean, it seemed a good idea at the time – 1882 to be precise – but modern evidence would demonstrate that it doesn’t improve gum health one jot (to use the scientific term).[2]

Golly, Ollie(!), that’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Especially considering there’s no modern evidence to demonstrate anything. I think this is more a question of the British feeling a little smug that for once they may have got things right. Take Dave Bry, another contributor on the subject to the Guardian:

The federal government has removed daily flossing from its official Dietary Guidelines for Americans after admitting to the Associated Press that “the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched”…

…I had gone to a dentist for the first time in more than a decade. My mouth was a disaster site: my teeth hurt, my gums bled every time I brushed them. I had gum disease, the dental hygienist said, and she warned me about all sorts of more serious health problems that studies had shown might follow– loss of teeth, heart disease, even cancer! I would have to come back for cleanings twice a month for the next four months. And I’d have to floss.

We filled out a calendar of appointments, and I made them. But I struggled, and failed, to find a daily flossing routine. It was hard to remember. And even when I did, it was such a boring way to spend two minutes, so unrewarding. And it hurt. Just a little, but still. Every time I squeezed the waxy little string between two of my teeth, just at that first moment, when you penetrate and the floss hits the gum: ouch! Again, just a little ouch, but certainly enough to render the whole endeavor less than fun.

Here’s a guy who was obviously suffering from a lack of floss – decaying teeth, sore gums, etc – and who needed flossing to be FUN!

It never became any less boring. And I quit – as is my wont, I’ve always lacked self-discipline. It wasn’t an abrupt quitting. It was a gradual petering out. After almost a month.
So I was glad to read the news about the uncertainty of its effectiveness. Who knows whether flossing works? Who knows whether it’s healthy? One thing’s for sure, though. It is definitely boring. I’m happy not to do it, and to not feel guilty about it.[3]

Well, that’s fine, Dave. So you’re happy to suffer painful teeth, bleeding gums, the possible outcomes of false teeth, heart disease, even cancer? And how about your halitosis problem, Dave? You never mentioned that, did you? No, better not to admit to that. In fact, better to not admit it to yourself. Bad breath? Huh, not me! Give us a kiss, Love.

The British may think they can be smug over flossing. Who needs it? We’re British, we know better. Well, guess what, so am I British and I know better than the AP or you smug bastards. My gnashers are living proof that flossing works. When all your rotting British teeth need to be pulled, I’m the one who’ll be walking around with all mine intact.

And don’t come complaining to me when your dentures keep falling out. I’ll just have a smug grin on my face.

[1] “Medical benefits of dental floss unproven” AP, August 2nd 2016

[2] “Dentists have stopped being strung along by the great flossing yarn. About time. Guardian, August 3rd 2016

[3] “Flossing is nonsense – and my laziness is vindicated” Guardian, August 4th 2016

3 Replies to “Refuting The Great Dental Floss Slander”

  1. LOL! I’m as Brit as they come and I’ve never flossed, ever.
    I do something comparable though, something recommended to me by the excellent BUPA dentist I was forced into seeing after moving home in England on retirement, and not finding an NHS dentist with space for me on his books.

    Ever since my first visit to the BUPA guy and a pretty thorough (and bloody!) cleaning, I followed his recommendation to use little inter-dental brushes, after the usual cleaning with toothbrush and toothpaste. I suppose use of these little brushes is similar to flossing, available in many widths according to one’s gaps, (I use 2 or 3 different sizes) and they have worked very well. I’ve never had strong teeth and do sport several crowns, but thanks to my original and superb NHS dentist in Leeds I’ve not yet had to resort to full dentures.

    Husband, like Mrs RJ, is a regular flosser…lol! Has been known to wield a water pic in addition, speaks highly of that.

    So ends the toothy tittle-tattle. 🙂

  2. Twilight – flossing has never been in vogue in Britain. I’d never considered it until I moved to America after fifty-odd years of mere brushing.

    I believe those inter-dental brushes are very good and may be even more effective than the floss. Certainly, dentists in the U.K. are now pushing them.

    Yeah, to AnyJazz for upholding the tradition, though if I wielded a water-pic I’d probably be in fear of drowning! 🙂

  3. I have terrible teeth, untold interventions over the years. Several dentist said when I opened my mouth for the first exam: “Oh Irish teeth!”. The shame of a nation.

    One of my friends, 70, has been flossing since birth and has never once had a cavity. I used to wonder about this strange thing called flossing when I emigrated.

    My kids do and have perfect teeth.


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