Brushing is essential, but it can’t do the job alone. Daily interdental cleaning is just as important. You have plenty of options for cleaning between your teeth and along the gum line. The question is: which is best?
Traditional string floss is the default, but not everyone is a fan. Floss picks represent an easier-to-use alternative, but they also come with downsides. If you’re deciding between the two, we have the details you need right here.
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Why Does Flossing Matter?
Many people dislike flossing. Brushing twice a day? Not a problem. Flossing once a day? Well…
We get it. Flossing is time-consuming, and string floss requires both hands along with some manual dexterity. For some, it’s even painful and makes their gums bleed. All this adds up to just 31% of Americans flossing every day.
Whether you love it, hate it, or just find it annoying, interdental cleaning is essential to good oral health. Even the most advanced toothbrushes can’t get between the teeth or under the gum line. Floss goes where brushes can’t, dislodging plaque before it calcifies into tartar.
That last point is what makes flossing so important. Tartar is a big problem. Hard and firmly fixed to the teeth, it contains bacteria and acids that eat away at the enamel and gums, which can cause decay and disease. Alone, that’s bad enough, but oral and general health are closely linked. Studies have linked tartar buildup and the oral health problems it causes to heart disease, stroke, and even diabetes.
How Often to Floss
The goal of flossing is to remove plaque before it calcifies into tartar. This timeline varies between individuals but can take as little as 24 hours. That’s why the American Dental Association recommends flossing once a day.
But this approach isn’t right for everyone. Once a day is the minimum — a good frequency for the average person. Depending on your overall and oral health, flossing two or more times a day might be better.
When to Floss
If there is an ideal frequency for flossing, is there also an ideal time? According to the professionals at the American Dental Association, yes, and it’s whenever’s most convenient for you. This increases the likelihood that you’ll remember to do it.
Don’t have a preferred time? Then floss before bed. This gives your teeth the most consecutive hours without food particles, making it easier to prevent plaque and tartar. Just skip the midnight snacks.
Can You Floss Too Much?
Yes, but what constitutes “too much” is subjective, so it depends on who you ask. The primary risk is that you might irritate your gum tissue. Proper flossing means getting around and under the gum line to remove plaque from the gingival pockets. Flossing too often can lead to bleeding, inflammation, and recession — and once the gums recede, they do not grow back.
A smaller risk is eroding your enamel. It might be the strongest substance in the body, but it can still get worn down. Like the gums, once it’s gone, it’s gone forever, leaving the vulnerable inner tissues of the teeth open to bacteria.
Pros and Cons of Traditional String Dental Floss
Dental floss is an interdental cleaning method that uses a long string wrapped around the fingers of both hands to remove plaque between the teeth and under the gum line. Invented in 1815, dental floss has been the default interdental cleaning tool for centuries.
While we often think of string floss as a single product, there are several types to choose from.
Nylon Floss: This is what you likely think of when you hear the word “floss.” It comes in waxed and unwaxed versions, which offer varying levels of comfort and control.
Monofilament Floss: Where nylon floss is made from multiple strands, monofilament floss is a single continuous fiber, making it less vulnerable to breakage.
Satin Tape: This type of floss is ultra-smooth and wider than other types, making it good for larger gaps and sensitive gums.
Super Floss: This is pre-cut floss with three sections: a stiff end to thread around appliances and bridges, standard floss for the gums, and a spongy section to clean gaps and around brackets.
All that said, these four types of dental floss still share many of the same pros and cons:
Pros of Traditional String Floss
- Traditional string floss is time-tested. It has been in use for over 200 years and is considered the go-to method for interdental cleaning.
- It’s effective at plague removal, even in difficult-to-reach areas, like the gingival pockets and between crowded teeth.
- It comes in several varieties, allowing you to choose the option that best suits your needs and preferences.
- You use about 12–18 inches of floss at a time, which lets you use a fresh spot every time you switch teeth.
- Since you use your fingers to guide and maneuver it, you have fine-tuned control over the floss.
Cons of Traditional String Floss
- Properly flossing all your teeth typically takes 5–10 minutes.
- You need decent manual dexterity to maneuver the floss correctly.
- It takes practice to get the technique right.
Pros and Cons of Floss Picks
Floss picks offer an alternative to traditional string floss. While they have only gone mainstream in recent decades, they have been in use since 1963.
Floss picks still contain floss, but rather than wrapping a long string around your fingers and guiding it with your thumbs, a short, taut piece of string stretches between a C-shaped piece of plastic. Flossers have a handle you’ll use to control them, moving them between the teeth and up around the gum line.
Pros of Floss Picks
- Floss picks are easier to use than traditional floss. This makes them ideal for people with arthritis, mobility issues, or large hands.
- You can easily take floss picks on the go or use them quickly in situations where floss would require too much time.
- Most versions are dual-ended, with the floss at one end and a toothpick at the other, making them more versatile than plain floss.
- Flossing with a pick typically takes about 3–5 minutes, which is roughly half the time it takes with string floss.
- The technique for using a floss pick is straightforward and most people get the hang of it in just a few uses.
Cons of Floss Picks
- Unless you switch to a new pick, you will end up using the same piece of floss to clean between all your teeth. This removes some bacteria and debris while redistributing others.
- Floss picks create more waste than traditional string floss.
- You can’t shape a floss pick the way you can string floss, making them less effective for most individuals.
Side By Side: How Do They Actually Compare?
Ultimately, what matters most is that you floss daily with a tool specifically designed for it. This can be string floss, a floss pick, or something else.
No option is always better than the others; the key is to choose the right one for you. Below, we look at how string floss and floss picks compare so you can select the right option for you.
|Effectiveness||Highly effective when used properly||Can be effective with perfect technique|
|Ease of Use||Somewhat difficult to use, requires two hands and dexterity||Very easy to use, even when you have limited mobility|
|Orthodontic Patients||Difficult to use with appliances||Only special designs are compatible with appliances|
|Comfort||Can cause bleeding gums and finger pain||Can cause bleeding gums but doesn’t hurt the fingers|
|Space||Very compact and easy to store||Very compact on their own, but the containers take up space|
|Portability||Easy to take anywhere||Easy to take anywhere|
|Environmental Impact||Single use||Single use|
|ADA Approval||Many options are ADA approved||Many options are ADA approved|
|Cost||Usually $5 or less, but you need to replace it often||Typically under $5 per pack, each lasting 2–3 months|
|Time Investment||Takes 5+ minutes per session plus prep||Takes 3–5 minutes per session|
In the end, you’ll probably gravitate toward one or the other. As long as you floss once a day and purchase ADA-approved tools — not toothpicks, your nails, or other items that can damage the gums — you will improve your oral health.
Which Should You Choose?
Now you have all the information you need to decide between string floss and floss picks. So, which one is right for you?
Choose String Floss If…
- You’re already comfortable using it
- You need something compact and portable
- Your dentist has recommended it
- You’re sticking to a tight budget
Choose Flossers If…
- You struggle with dexterity
- You like the dual-purpose design
- It’s hard to find the motivation and time to floss
- You don’t mind paying slightly more
What About Other Options?
Remember that this is not a binary choice. There are other interdental cleaning options that could be better for you. They include:
- Dental Floss Holder: If you like the floss pick design but want to use clean floss between each set of teeth, the dental floss holder makes it happen. You simply thread the floss through it, then move to a clean section with each tooth.
- Water Flossers: These use a pressurized stream of water directed by a wand and tip to knock plaque and other debris loose. There are various types to choose from, making it easy to get the features you want.
- Air Flossers: These are similar to water flossers, and they even use water droplets and directional tips. However, they use less water, mixing droplets with air, making them less messy.
- Interdental Brushes: Looking similar to brushes that clean reusable straws, these tools brush between the teeth, under appliances, and along the gum line to eliminate plaque.
Flossing might not be your favorite thing in the world. It might actually be one of your least favorite. But it’s still crucial to maintaining good oral health — and the good news is that floss alternatives can make it a lot more convenient. For you, that alternative might be floss picks, or you might be content with traditional floss. Either way, floss every day and your healthy smile will thank you for it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are floss picks a good option?
The research varies on whether string floss or floss picks are more effective. However, floss picks are effective enough to be a good option — assuming they are the right fit for your wants and needs. Ask your dentist for tips on how to use them most effectively.
Why do some people say traditional floss is better than floss picks?
A few reasons. First, the research goes back and forth, with some studies showing floss as more effective, and others showing the reverse. Second, you can’t make the same motions with floss picks as you can with floss, and some feel this means they cannot get their teeth as clean. Finally, you use the same section of floss over and over again, which can spread bacteria rather than eliminate it.
Is it OK to reuse floss picks?
No. Floss picks are single-use products and you should toss them after each use. Reusing them can introduce bacteria that cause cavities and they won’t be as effective as a new pick.
What is the right order for brushing, flossing, and using mouthwash?
There’s no universally correct order. However, research indicates that it’s best to floss, rinse with mouthwash, then brush without rinsing. This way, the floss knocks food particles and plaque loose first, the mouthwash kills bacteria, then brushing eliminates everything while remineralizing the enamel.
How many times per day should you use floss or floss picks?
For the average person, just once a day. Some people might need to floss more frequently because of their oral or general health needs. However, overflossing can cause problems, so don’t increase frequency unless your dentist recommends it.
Are floss picks the best alternative to traditional string floss?
It depends on the person, but in most cases, water flossers are actually the best alternative. Certain studies show they might offer more effective cleaning and they’re also easier for most people to use. Water flossers are also faster and require minimal dexterity — even less than floss picks do.
Can I floss with toothpicks?
If you are in a restaurant and need to remove a bit of stuck food, they’ll work as a last resort. However, they are stiff and can damage the gums and teeth, so you shouldn’t rely on them for your daily flossing.
What is the best time of day to floss?
Worry less about the ideal time and more about flossing once every 24 hours. Choose the time of day you find it easiest, so you’ll remember to do it. If you don’t have a specific time that is better than others, floss before bed so you can benefit from clean teeth for as long as possible.
Should I see my dentist if flossing hurts?
Yes. It’s probably nothing serious, but it can signal issues with the gums and teeth, so get checked as a precaution.
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