According to the American Dental Association, regular and proper use of dental floss can remove up to 80% of dental plaque, preventing the buildup of plaque and reducing the likelihood of gingivitis while also reducing bad breath. Dental floss is a thin cord that is used to dislodge particles of food and plaque that can accumulate between the teeth, in areas where a toothbrush cannot effectively clean. Dentists recommend that people floss daily, as an adjunct to regular toothbrushing, to maintain the health of the teeth and mouth. Flossing is particularly beneficial when orthodontic appliances are present, as these can trap large amounts of debris and plaque that may be otherwise difficult to remove, and they can also restrict the natural ability of the tongue and lips to remove debris from the surfaces of the teeth. Orthodontic appliances can also lead to exceptionally virulent changes in the composition of bacteria, which can lead to disproportionately high incidences of periodontal disease.

In 1819, New Orleans dentist Levi Spear Parmly recommended the use of a piece of waxed silk thread to loosen the debris between the teeth, which he named “the real source of disease.” In 1882, unwaxed silk dental floss was introduced commercially; this was the first commercially available dental floss. Dental floss was patented in 1898 by the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, who manufactured dental floss from surgical silk, and in World War II, nylon floss was adopted and introduced into wider use. By the 1970s, flossing had become part of people’s daily hygiene ritual. Dentists recommend using floss daily, either before or after brushing, to clean out the areas between the teeth and to help the fluoride from toothpaste better reach the interdental spaces. Proper flossing also helps clean dental plaque away from the surfaces of the teeth just below the gumline.

Dental floss is available in a vast variety of types and flavors. Floss may be waxed or unwaxed, and it may be made of multiple filaments combined into a single cord, or it may be a monofilament. It is also available in a number of different thicknesses, and some floss is treated with antibacterial agents or fluoride. None of these characteristics is considered more effective or beneficial than any other; the right floss for each person is based on personal preference. Factors that may influence preference include the amount of space between an individual’s teeth, the texture of the teeth, and the shape of the gum line. Some people also prefer to use a supplemental device, like a floss threader or floss pick, if they lack comfortable manual dexterity or are otherwise challenged by traditional flossing methods. Still others prefer to use motorized power flossers. No matter the characteristics, each type of floss has a comparable ability to remove dental plaque. Because proper technique is a significant factor in the efficacy of flossing, it can be helpful to seek professional guidance on proper flossing technique and recommendations for types of floss, which you can discuss with your dentist or dental hygienist at your next checkup.