A healthy smile starts with your daily habits. We all know the pillars of at-home oral hygiene: brushing and flossing — or should that be flossing and brushing? Does the order really matter as long as all the steps are there?
It just might. We’ve looked at the research and the expert recommendations to determine whether you should floss or brush first.
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Flossing vs. Brushing First: What the Research Says
We’ve long known the importance of combining brushing with interdental cleaning. Dental floss was invented in 1815, so we’ve had over 200 years to study its positive effects. Brushing can only do so much, and cleaning between the teeth and under the gum line aren’t in a toothbrush’s wheelhouse.
But researchers haven’t studied the right order for this combination nearly as much. In fact, they just started examining the topic around ten years ago.
The most widely cited study on the matter suggests that flossing and then brushing removes more plaque than the reverse. It also allows for greater fluoride concentration, which strengthens the enamel. So, there’s your answer — right? Perhaps. But it’s important to look at the details.
First, this study only involved 25 subjects. That isn’t statistically significant, and it means that we need to be careful about applying the outcomes to the population at large. Plus, the participants were all dental students. That doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome was skewed, but it could mean the test subjects don’t represent the diversity of the general population.
With that said, the differences between groups are statistically significant, even if only within the confines of the study. It found that interdental and whole plaque reduction — as well as fluoride concentration — in the floss-brush group was greater than in the brush-floss group. Interestingly, there was no statistical significance in the difference in marginal plaque between the two groups.
The study didn’t come to definitive conclusions, but many dental professionals theorize that flossing then brushing more effectively kills the bacteria that lead to plaque. Basically, if you brush first, flossing will knock food, plaque, and bacteria loose, but it will remain in your mouth. But if you knock all of that loose, then brush, it will eliminate those particles — or at least more than when you brush first.
You also won’t floss away the fluoride on your teeth that your toothpaste leaves behind, making it easier for your teeth to resist cavities.
If you are on team brush-floss, do you need to switch? Not necessarily. Most dental professionals agree that what’s important is brushing twice a day and flossing once a day, no matter which order you choose. You can even choose to brush, floss, and brush again to maximize your benefits.
Tips for Flossing Properly
Regardless of how you structure your routine, using the right techniques is essential. Otherwise, you aren’t getting the maximum benefits, and might even cause harm. With flossing, the right technique depends on your tools of choice. Below is a quick rundown of how to floss with traditional string floss.
- Take out the right amount of floss for your needs — somewhere around 12–18 inches. At this length, you have enough floss to wrap around your fingers while being able to use a new section for each tooth.
- Wind the floss around your index or middle fingers. Keep this tight enough for good control, but not so tight it cuts off circulation. Use your thumbs to pinch and maneuver the floss.
- Use two different motions. First, zig-zag the floss between the teeth, from the gum line to the chewing surface. Then form a C shape to get the edges and again run the floss from bottom to top.
- Repeat this for all the teeth. Move to a new section of floss for each tooth.
Tips for Brushing Properly
Just like with flossing, the right approach to brushing makes a difference. The big caveat here is that the correct techniques vary based on the shape and position of your teeth. For most, the following works great, but your dentist may recommend a different technique.
- Begin with the right tools: a soft-bristled toothbrush, preferably with a small, round head. This can be manual or electric.
- Hold the brush head at a 45-degree angle to your teeth. Start with the bristles at the gum line.
- Begin brushing each tooth with a gentle, circular motion. Make sure you brush all the surfaces.
- If time allows, reverse the motion. This can help ensure you get any spots you otherwise might have missed.
What Is The Ideal Daily Oral Care Routine?
Brushing and flossing are the cornerstones of any good oral hygiene routine, but they’re not the only elements to consider. Below is a quick look at what to include in your at-home routine and how to approach each step.
- Be sure to floss once a day, every day. In some cases, you might need to floss more often, but don’t make it a routine unless your dentist recommends it.
- Try to floss at the same time each day. This helps turn it into part of your daily routine, making it less likely that you will forget.
- Use ADA-approved flossing options, since they’re considered safe for the teeth and gums and effective for removing plaque.
- Don’t floss aggressively. If you are worried about getting the technique correct, ask your dentist for a demonstration.
- Take your time. Be sure to run the floss along the entire edge of each tooth — getting a bit of the front and back surfaces — as well as the gum line.
- Brush at least twice a day, every day — once in the morning and once before bed. You can also brush 1–2 times during the day as needed.
- At the same time, don’t overbrush. Unless your dentist says otherwise, you should only brush more than twice a day on an as-needed basis to protect your enamel.
- Each brushing session should take two minutes, minimum. This gives you enough time to brush all tooth surfaces thoroughly.
- Use gentle brushstrokes. If you press too hard, you can wear down your enamel, leaving the delicate structures of your teeth vulnerable to decay.
- Use a fluoridated toothpaste. This helps to remineralize the enamel, strengthening it and reducing your risk of cavities.
- Don’t rinse after brushing. You should spit out excess toothpaste but don’t swish with water or mouthwash. Let the residual fluoride sit on your teeth and work on the enamel.
- If you’ve had issues with tooth decay, gum disease, or bad breath, you might want to add mouthwash to your routine.
- Use it between flossing and brushing or at least an hour after brushing to ensure it doesn’t remove fluoride from the teeth.
- Avoid mouthwashes with alcohol, since it’s acidic and can wear down the enamel, making tooth decay more likely.
Other Tools and Tips
- When selecting dental tools, stick to ones with the ADA Seal of Acceptance. It indicates that tools like it have proven benefits and that this particular tool is considered safe.
- Don’t forget to brush your tongue with a scraper or toothbrush. This can help eliminate bacteria and make your mouth feel cleaner. However, the ADA does not believe this helps with bad breath.
- Look into other interdental cleaning methods besides traditional string floss. You can use these as alternatives or additional cleaning options. For example, you could replace floss with a water flosser or use Stim U dents and interdental brushes instead of toothpicks when you’re out.
- See your dentist every six months for a checkup and professional cleaning. They’ll remove any tartar that’s accumulated, answer your questions, catch problems in the early stages, and provide oral hygiene recommendations.
Brush then floss, floss then brush: either way, you are taking good care of your teeth. If you want to follow the science, floss first, then brush your teeth, and if you’d like, use mouthwash in between or at least an hour after you’re done.
But the most important thing is to form a routine, stick to it, and use the right techniques. Do that, and your smile will look and feel great.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why shouldn’t I rinse my mouth after brushing my teeth?
Because your toothpaste should contain fluoride, which remineralizes the enamel. When you rinse, you remove that fluoride from the teeth before it can finish its work, limiting the results of brushing.
What is the right way to store a toothbrush?
You shouldn’t store it in a closed container, since this makes it easier for bacteria to grow. However, you need to protect it from germs, especially if you have a small bathroom where the toilet is very close to the sink. Store it in a way that lets it easily dry after use, which typically means standing or hanging upright.
Should I disinfect my toothbrush?
Yes. Experts recommend disinfecting your toothbrush once a week throughout the year, and perhaps more often during cold and flu season. There are multiple methods you can use, from special disinfecting lights to simply soaking it in antibacterial mouthwash.
Are manual or electric toothbrushes better?
Both can get the job done. However, if you struggle with proper brushing or have limited mobility, the additional power and features of an electric toothbrush could work better for you.
How do I know when it’s time to replace my toothbrush?
Every 3–4 months, you should replace your toothbrush or toothbrush head. You might need to replace it sooner if you see signs of damage, such as bent, frayed, or missing bristles. Keep in mind that this kind of damage can mean you’re brushing too hard, so focus on applying less pressure.
Can I brush my gums and tongue, too?
Yes! Not only can you, but you should. Brushing the gums is important for plaque removal as well as stimulating blood flow, and brushing the tongue helps remove bacteria.
Is there a trick to know if I am brushing my teeth correctly?
Yes, there are plaque-disclosing tablets that you can use after brushing to see where you still have buildup. This will help you determine if you’re using the right techniques to effectively clean each tooth.
Why do I need to floss if I already brush twice a day?
Because floss goes where brushes cannot, getting between the teeth and even under the gum line, removing plaque before it turns into cavity-causing tartar.
What is the best floss alternative to use?
Water picks are probably the best alternative. In some studies, they actually outperform floss. They also don’t come with the risk of gum damage, like many other methods do. However, no method is universally the best; it comes down to your needs and preferences.
Should I floss in the morning or at night?
The time of day doesn’t matter very much. What’s important is that you select a time each day when you will remember to floss.