The news made the rounds Tuesday, causing nothing short of a media uproar. Everyone from the Department of Health and Human Services to the American Dental Association has recommended daily flossing to prevent plaque buildup, gum disease and cavities, but according to the AP, these claims have been based on research with major flaws, such as outdated testing methods and all-too-brief study lengths.
But dental professionals say it’s not quite time to ditch the floss. A lack of good research doesn’t prove something is ineffective ― just that it hasn’t been a priority for research funding.
What the AP investigation found
When the AP requested evidence to support flossing from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agencies were unable to provide data. What’s more, in the agencies’ updated national dietary guidelines, flossing had been quietly removed.
In a letter to the AP, the government acknowledged that the benefits of flossing had not been researched properly.
The AP report looked at five analyses of 25 studies in total that compare the use of a toothbrush with the combined use of a toothbrush and floss. The reviews found that evidence supporting the health benefits of flossing is “very unreliable” and of “very low” quality. Other studies cited by the American Dental Association and American Academy of Periodontology as proof of the benefits of flossing used outdated testing methods, lasted for too short a time, or studied too few people to be deemed reliable.
“If you use your toothbrush with floss, it’s not more effective than tooth brushing alone,” said Fridus Van Der Weijden, a University of Amsterdam dental school professor who focuses on the prevention of periodontal infections and co-authored two of the five reviews of flossing research, in the video above.
Why you should take this with a grain of salt
Those of us who have been guilted in the past over improper flossing habits may consider this vindication. Nevertheless, this shocking revelation doesn’t mean we should all ditch flossing altogether.
ADA spokesperson Dr. Matthew Messina acknowledged the poor quality of the research supporting dental floss; however, he maintains that flossing is still an effective way to remove food from between the teeth.
“We need to remove bacteria from the teeth, from the gums, and from in between the teeth,” Messina told HuffPost.
Messina went on to point out that there aren’t a lot of research dollars allocated for preventative measures that doctors already know are effective.
“There’s only so many research dollars and so much research effort,” he said. “So not a lot of effort has been put into the study of dental flossing, just simply because there are other more important things for us to do.”
“Nobody’s done a study to say that using a parachute jumping out of an airplane is safer than not using a parachute.”
“Nobody’s done a study to say that using a parachute jumping out of an airplane is safer than not using a parachute,” Messina continued. “I’m still going to use a parachute, because we just know that that’s going to work. It’s all about putting it into perspective.”
Van Der Weijden does agree that there are benefits to cleaning between your teeth. It’s simply unclear whether flossing is the most effective strategy ― Van Der Weijden prefers to use toothpicks. Dr. Messina also pointed to Waterpiks and interdental cleaners as options for people who struggle to floss properly.
The bottom line? While you may feel slightly betrayed by the lack of scientific evidence for flossing, you probably should keep doing it. It’s a low-risk preventative measure that can aid in your quest for a healthy mouth. Don’t toss the floss just yet.