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Maine Dentists: Don’t Consider Dropping Flossing, Despite Report

Patty Wight
Hygienist Mindy Syphers and Amber Thomas during a toutine cleaning at Drews Dental Services in Lewiston.

We’ve all heard the flossing lecture. Once a day, we’re supposed to slide a waxy string between our teeth to remove food and bacteria. It’s a practice that dentists and the federal government have recommended for decades.

But last week, a report from the Associated Press turned that recommendation on its head: it found no scientific evidence to support flossing. Lest all you failed flossers think you finally got a lucky break, think again. Maine dentists are not about to free patients from this daily chore.

At Drews Dental Services in Lewiston, Amber Thomas is in for a routine cleaning. Hygienist Mindy Syphers scrapes Thomas’ teeth and asks the question that forces patients to fess up.

“How often would you say you were flossing?” Syphers says.

“I don’t know, may be 5 times a week? Not every day, but I try to do it daily,” Thomas says.

That’s a better rate than most patients, Syphers says.

“Most are three day a week flossers,” she says, laughing.

The American Dental Association recommends flossing daily. That report last week from the Associated Press casting doubt on the practice didn’t exactly help dentists’ cause, says Dr. Kristina Lake.

“My reaction was, oh my gosh, it wasn’t hard enough to begin with to get our patients to floss, now all of a sudden you’re going to have the news telling them, ‘Hey, it’s OK, you don’t have to,’” she says.

The AP looked at research over the past decade and found no strong evidence to support flossing. What’s more, after the AP asked the federal government for evidence — because flossing is included in U.S. dietary guidelines — the recommendation was subsequently dropped from the 2016 guidelines.

Government officials reportedly told the AP that flossing had never been researched as required.

“The studies that are out there have not been conducted, let’s say, up to snuff of the scientific community,” says Dr. Peter Drews, president of the Maine Dental Association.

Poorly designed studies that don’t show a strong benefit to flossing, he says, are not a good reason to stop. Drews says dentists have never held up flossing as a grand solution to dental problems anyway. But it is one tool that helps.

“Patients need to understand it’s all about plaque and bacteria,” he says. “You have to get that plaque and bacteria out from around your teeth, and flossing is a very inexpensive way to do it.”

Leave that plaque and bacteria, and it can lead to gum disease and tooth decay. And toothbrushes, says Dr. Jon Ryder, can’t always do the job.

Credit Patty Wight / MPBN
Dr. Jon Ryder

“People that have crooked teeth for example, or misaligned teeth, or missing teeth, or dentures, or crowns and bridge work, and things like that,” says Ryder, dean of the University of New England College of Dental Medicine. “There’s no way that a toothbrush bristle can extend into pockets or into cavity areas longer than 3 or 4 millimeters.”

Ryder says the Dental College will continue to stand behind flossing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control still recommends flossing. And so does Dr. Norma Desjardins, a dentist in Presque Isle.

“There isn’t a lot of scientific evidence that says that having a shower every day is good for your health, but I’m certainly going to keep showering,” she says.

In Desjardins’ 24 years of practice, she says, she’s seen firsthand that flossing works.

“When we have somebody who’s willing and able and motivated to incorporate the interdental cleaning into their daily routine, when we see them a few months later, we do see a difference. We see less bleeding, because now there’s less bacteria in there,” she says.

Aside from gum health, Drews says flossing can also help in the breath department. He offers this metaphor of the odor that can emit from unflossed mouths.

“For example, in my household, sometimes I’ll take the trash out, and by the time I come back, someone has thrown something else in that garbage can. So if I put a brand new liner in that garbage can and there’s a piece of garbage below the liner, it’s gonna smell eventually,” he says.

So, Drews says, grab whatever you like, whether it be floss, a toothpick, or a fancier device like an air or water flosser. But clean in-between your teeth. Your mouth, he says, will be healthier.