Cleaning teeth has a history that has become with time, a science. This science has not only a professional practice technique, typically a dental hygienist, but also a home technique, ie, everyone's bathroom toothbrush and dental floss.
In our ancestral days, our eating habits were limited to very organic food material which are very different from today’s modern processed foods. Our ancestral food consumption had properties that did not bind hard to teeth like todays' processed foods do. It is the food material left behind that creates dental problems and bad breath.
In our ancestral days, we did not live nearly as long as we do now in modern times so poorly maintained/cleaned teeth have a greater chance to show problematic diseases and bad breath. Now that we are living much longer lives, we hear that constant nagging doctor/hygienist saying "You need to brush more. You need to Floss more". Long ago, people would use a frayed stick to brush food off their teeth. This frayed stick graduated to our modern toothbrush of multiple designs that we can find at the store. Probably shortly after the frayed stick, someone grabbed a piece of loose thread off their shirt to pull it through our teeth. This loose thread then graduated to out modern "dental floss", waxed or not. What you are seeing is a very dynamic process of inventions developed from a need.
The frayed stick improved to a toothbrush and a piece of thread improved to dental floss, so what is so bad about dental floss? Dental floss, in it's time, has been great but there are some problems. To show you the problems, I need to review the dental floss technique taught by our dentist or dental hygienist. Basically, you take a piece of floss, about 12" long, wrapping it around your index fingers and then using your thumbs in tandem, guide the floss through the contacts, between the teeth. Using an up and down, side to side motion over the sides of the two teeth you have the floss between, you can better clean off food and plaque. This process is repeated from tooth to tooth until finished and "voila" you have clean teeth....or we think.
The problem begins with both the limitations of floss and technique. When dental floss is first taken from it's container, it's clean, without bacteria on it. The problem is that once it touches the tooth and begins it's journey down and around the tooth, it becomes dirty, via this technique. This floss is now contaminated with plaque and bacteria. Moving it from side to side will help dislodge larger pieces of food but it is now "smearing" bacteria over the same areas. Bacteria in plaque is one of the biggest culprits in dental disease and bad breath, so in the end, dental floss has done little to actually remove bacteria. To make matters worse, a large percentage of people using floss, will look at it saying to themselves "Well, that still looks good. I'll use it again on the next area until it is so frayed that it will break". What this creates now is dirty floss used on another area! Gross!
We're all adults here, so let me share this bit of toilet training with you. Toilet paper goes only one direction and is thrown away for another, as necessary. It does not go from side to side for obvious reasons, so that is why floss should be used once in one area and then disposed of for another length of clean floss. Easy Peasy, lemon squeezy. Regardless, the question still arises "Even though we see the problems with dental floss, what is the alternative"?
The answer comes from "necessity is the mother of invention". Remember how the frayed stick and thread graduated to the inventions of a toothbrush and dental floss? Well, dental floss improved with the invention of the WaterPik or branded sometimes as the Water Floss. The WaterPik was invented in the early 1960's as an oral irrigation device. When used properly, a jet of pulsating clean water blows food material, plaque and bacteria out from between teeth. A huge step froward in oral hygiene. To get a visual across, I remember a dental hygienist once telling a patient that oral irrigation devices are like an "bidet" for the mouth. I could not stop laughing at her very visual explanation but even the patient laughed saying "I get it. I will buy one, today".
In the end, if you love dental floss, then use it but finish your teeth cleaning using an oral irrigation WaterPik device to remove anything left behind from the toothbrush and floss. Doing so will improve your overall dental health and improve everyone's bad breath.
Steven Jaksha DMD
Odontologist, Oral Diseases & Bad Breath specialist