5 tips for flossing the right way

Brushing our teeth every day is vital for a healthier mouth. But brushing alone only does so much. To get the ultimate clean, it’s important to reach all the nooks and crannies between your teeth.

That’s why the dentist often asks about flossing. If this isn’t exactly a question to look forward to, the tips below may help give some extra motivation to stick with a flossing habit. Plus, learn how to choose the right floss for you and use it properly.

The health benefits of flossing

Flossing reaches spots that a toothbrush can’t. “People need to floss their teeth to help prevent cavities in between teeth,” says Sneha Mohan, D.M.D., a dentist with Midtown Dental Group in New York City. “A toothbrush’s bristles or a water flosser can’t do that, so flossing is the gold standard to help prevent decay between teeth.”

Without flossing, food and bacteria may sit between the teeth, jump-starting the decaying process. “The bacteria can cause damage to a tooth’s enamel, or surface,” Dr. Mohan says.

Bacteria that’s left to fester may turn into plaque, a sticky film that coats teeth.1 If plaque isn’t regularly removed, it might evolve into tartar. Tartar is a hard mineral deposit that needs to be removed by a dental professional.2 Tartar that builds up on the gumline may lead to more serious issues, such as periodontal (gum) disease.3 

Periodontal disease may start as gingivitis, a milder form of gum disease. It may progress to the more severe form, periodontitis. Periodontitis happens when gingivitis goes untreated. It may harm the tissues and bones that support teeth. Eventually, the teeth may become loose, fall out on their own or have to be pulled.4

Gum disease is fairly common in the United States. It affects 2 in 5 American adults ages 30 and older.5 Older adults are especially vulnerable. In fact, 68% of people ages 65 and older suffer from gum disease, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.6

Flossing may help reduce oral disease, especially as we age. One study found that people ages 65 and older who flossed their teeth had lower incidences of periodontal disease, cavities and tooth loss, compared with the non-flossing group.7

Another benefit of flossing? It may help minimize bad breath caused by bacteria. “Any bacteria remaining in your mouth can cause a bad smell,” says Dr. Mohan.

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What are the different types of dental floss?

Dental floss comes in different sizes, shapes and types. Choosing the right flossing tool is a matter of personal preference and what works better with a person’s mouth. Here are the main types.

  • Dental floss: Many people choose to use this standard form of dental floss. It’s a spool of floss that comes in a small case. You pull out the amount of floss needed, then snap off the strand and hold it directly in your hands.2
  • Dental/floss pick: This short stick can be plastic or wooden. It has a pick on one end. On the other end, there are 2 prongs with a piece of floss between them. These tools are intended for single usage.2
  • Interdental tools: These small-headed tools are available in a variety of sizes to match the space between the teeth.8

Whether in string or pick form, floss is typically made of nylon or plastic.2 Nylon floss comes waxed or unwaxed. There are pros and cons to both kinds, says Dr. Mohan.

“Waxed is usually stronger than unwaxed, so it won’t break as much during flossing, but it can be difficult to use if the teeth are close together. The texture can also be off-putting for some people,” says Dr. Mohan.

She points out that unwaxed floss may be thinner and easier to use between teeth. But it also has more potential to fray, shred or break during use.

Ultimately, the type of floss should be suited to a person’s particular needs.9 For example, people with dental implants or bridges may find that using an interdental pick helps reach around dental work. “The bottom line is, use floss that’s easiest in your hands,” says Dr. Mohan.

That said, be sure to use an actual dental floss product. The American Dental Association (ADA) has a tool on its website that lists products with the ADA Seal of Acceptance.10 They have determined that the product is proven to be safe and effective.

The right way to floss

These steps may help you floss properly. This example uses string floss, but tips 3 to 5 apply to any type of flossing tool. Flossing daily may help protect against serious dental issues down the road. If flossing correctly is still confusing, ask a dentist or dental hygienist for help demonstrating the right technique.

Flossing tip #1: Use enough floss

Start with 18 inches of string floss.3 That should provide enough floss to use clean sections while moving around the mouth. 

Flossing tip #2: Position the floss correctly between your fingers

Wind most of the floss loosely around one of your middle fingers. Then, wind the rest around the middle finger on the other hand, until there is about 1 to 2 inches between the 2 fingers. Now, pinch the floss firmly between the thumb and index finger of each hand to guide it.3 

Flossing tip #3: Move with care

Ease the floss between the tooth and gums. Curve the floss into a C shape against the tooth as it reaches the gumline. Carefully rub the side of the tooth with an up and down motion, following the tooth’s shape.3

Slide the floss back out, then adjust it so it’s on a new section of floss. Move to the next tooth and repeat the process.3

Flossing tip #4: Apply the right pressure

Avoid flossing either too hard or too lightly. Don’t push the floss into the gums, either. Flossing the wrong way may cause the gums to bleed and damage the tissue between teeth.8

On the flip side, flossing in an overly gentle manner may not remove all the food or bacteria.

Flossing tip #5: Reach each tooth

Make sure to reach between each tooth to get any remaining food, as missed sections could become plaque. To help remember where you’ve flossed, use a flossing pattern. 

This can be something like going from the upper jaw to lower jaw on each side, moving left to right. There’s no specific flossing pattern that dentists recommend. People should pick the way that will best help them remember where they’ve flossed.11

The best time to floss

The American Dental Association recommends that people brush their teeth twice a day and floss once daily.12 However, a person can certainly do it more often.

“Ideally, it’s best to floss after every meal so that food and bacteria don’t linger between your teeth,” says Dr. Mohan. “Not everyone can do that, so the next best time is at night before bed. This way, the food doesn’t remain in your mouth overnight.”

Is it best to brush or floss first? There is no official guideline for this, but research suggests that flossing before brushing may result in more plaque removal.13 “Brushing afterward will flush out anything that comes out during flossing,” Dr. Mohan explains. 

Flossing daily may help protect against serious dental issues down the road.

Haven’t had a dental visit in a while? It’s never too late to start taking care of your teeth and gums. Already a UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage member with dental coverage? Sign in to your plan website to review dental benefits and schedule an appointment.

Already a UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage member?

Routine dental care is important to your teeth and overall health. Have dental coverage? Review coverage and benefits and schedule an appointment today.