In brief: Don't brush off flossing

In brief

Don't brush off flossing

The conventional wisdom: Flossing is the best way to get rid of the bits of food and that whitish, smelly stuff that collects in the tiny furrows between your teeth and your gums. The white film is the "plaque buildup" they talk about so much on toothpaste commercials, although brushing actually does a poor job of removing it from between your teeth. Plaque is a biofilm — sticky collections of bacteria, their excretions, and other substances that form into an impervious little microbial ecosystem.

Recent research has sowed a little doubt about flossing. In 2002, Harvard researchers published a study of the oral hygiene practices of health care professionals and found that regular flossers were just as likely as nonflossers to have periodontitis (advanced gum disease). A year later, a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association reported that using mouthwash twice a day was just as effective as flossing at reducing plaque and gingivitis.

But flossing scofflaws don't get off the hook that easily. Most studies still say flossing has oral health benefits. The study comparing mouthwash with flossing was paid for by Pfizer, which makes Listerine. And the American Dental Association points out that the study — and another one that was published earlier — didn't examine the effects on tooth decay and periodontitis.

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