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The Great Flossgate Debate

What's The Real Deal?

Dental floss. Chances are that you have some in your bathroom right now. And we wouldn't be too surprised if you've been wondering recently if it still actually belongs there.  Over the last year or so dental floss - and the act of flossing at all - has become the subject of some rather heated debate worldwide, after an Associated Press 'investigation' published in 2016 suggested that the oral health benefits of flossing have been overblown. As you might expect, dentists across the globe for the most part disagreed. But what's the real story? 


A Brief History of Dental Floss

If we are going to talk about dental floss and its real role in oral health it helps to know a bit about how it ever came to be in the first place. Although there is some evidence that even cave dwellers used rudimentary toothpicks, the concept of dental floss did not appear until the early 19th century courtesy of a scholarly dentist practicing in New Orleans in the US.

Levi Spear Parmly was not exactly your average dentist. He was a rather serious man who loved research as much as he did dentistry, becoming a noted author in the field at a relatively young age. It was in 1819 that he first wrote about his practice of making use of waxed silk threads to clean between his patient's teeth. He laid out his rationale for doing so by stating it was "to dislodge that irritating matter which no brush can remove and which is the real source of disease".

Dental floss was not made commercially available however until long after Parmly's death. In 1882 the Codman and Shurtleft company began producing unwaxed silk floss for general sale, but the concept didn't begin to really catch on until the Johnson & Johnson Corporation received a patent for dental floss made from the same silk thread that surgeons used for stitches.

Finally, dental floss as we know it came about during World War II, when a New Orleans doctor, Charles C. Bass, a man who had a great interest in how oral health affected general health, revisited Parmly's original concept of waxing the flossing thread, but he used nylon instead of silk, partially because it was cheaper and easier to work with than silk and partially because of its superior abrasion resistance.

Ask any dental student and they'll tell you that both Parmly and Bass are considered true pioneers in the field of preventative dentistry and that their work still influences the profession today. So, did two brilliant minds, working over half a decade apart, really get it all wrong? 

 Vintage advertising from Lister, above left and Crest, above right.

Vintage advertising from Lister, above left and Crest, above right.

Dental Floss and THAT Report

Coming back to the 'Flossgate' debate (yes, people have called it that) of today, most dental educators dentists had similar responses to the AP report. The report, they said, missed the point completely when it comes the benefits of flossing for oral health.

Per many of them the research used as the basis for the piece did indeed show that yes, when flossing is performed incorrectly, there are no health benefits. But why would that come as a surprise to anybody they countered. In addition, the very same studies showed numerous benefits could be associated with flossing with proper technique. So, essentially, the "big" news was no news, simply a reiteration of what dentists had been saying all along, floss regularly and floss the RIGHT WAY and your oral health will be improved.

Let us not forget people who suffer from gum disease and other health problems resulting from less then sufficient oral hygiene habits. Patients with poor oral hygiene habits, poor diet and/or poor lifestyle habits may have early signs of oral disease or infection. Inheritance plays a massive role in periodontitis as well with genetics being a contributing factor in the onset of the disease.

Incorrect brushing techniques, regular smoking or a diet high in sugar may result in gum disease, which can be irreversible once the disease advances to periodontal disease. This may be even moreso for patients gentically predisposed to gum disease. For patients engaging in habits that lead to gum disease, they are often unaware of the physical signs and symptoms. For these patients regular flossing is imperative. 


Not everyone bought the arguments against the report and for some, the debate over flossing is still going on. However we side with majority of our peers and recommend regular flossing. Think you might need some help with your flossing technique? Make an appointment for a checkup (you know it's time anyway) and we'll be happy to give you a lesson.

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