It is the kind of headline that makes those of us in the field of health and dental care cringe:
Medical benefits of dental floss unproven.
First, let me tell you, flossing works. As a dentist I know this. And time and again, the media comes out with stories about whether it is necessary. (Maybe journalists are tired of flossing, we’re not sure!)
Why does it work? Flossing is the best way to remove particles of food from between your teeth. These particles encourage the growth of bacteria, which then cause tooth decay and gum disease. If you floss, you are less likely to leave particles of food in your teeth, leading to less bacteria growth and less risk of tooth decay and gum disease.
It’s that simple.
But what about that Associated Press article, and all the articles that went viral right after it came out?
Here’s what happened.
The federal government has recommended flossing since 1979. It was first recommended in a surgeon general’s report and then in the dietary guidelines, which are issued every five years and must be based on scientific evidence.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, last year the AP asked the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to provide proof that flossing works. Then, this year, the flossing recommendation was removed from the federal dietary guidelines.
So the AP reviewed 25 studies on flossing and concluded that the evidence for flossing was “weak, very unreliable,” of “very low” quality, and carries “a moderate to large potential for bias.”
So yes, perhaps the highest standards of scientific evidence have not been applied to studies on flossing. But does that mean it doesn’t work? It is important to remember that while the benefits of flossing may be unproven according to the highest scientific standards, it does not mean the benefit has been disproven.
The fact is, floss is inexpensive, and it only takes a few minutes a day to remove the food particles. And as dentists, we can always tell who is flossing and who is not.
For more reasons on why you should floss, see our blog from last November: Is Flossing Really Necessary?