Brushing alone isn’t enough. You need to include interdental cleaning in your daily oral hygiene routine, too. But which method is best? Traditional string floss has long been the default option, but it’s not always easy to use. Water flossers are easier, but have their own set of downsides.
Each person has different flossing preferences, and we’ve got the details you need to choose your perfect tools. From affordability to convenience, we cover it all in our look at traditional string floss vs. water flossers.
Table of Contents
Traditional String Floss: What You Should Know
A lot of people dislike flossing — just 31% of Americans floss every day. And for most, it’s because flossing is just plain inconvenient. It takes 5–10 minutes if you do it right, it takes practice, and it requires dexterity.
Or at least it does with traditional floss. Invented in the early 1800s, string floss has been the go-to method for centuries, so it’s typically what comes to mind first. And although some people find it difficult to use, traditional floss comes with plenty of benefits, too. It’s firm but flexible, allowing it to reach all those areas brushes can’t, and more time-tested than any other option.
Plus, it comes in several varieties, giving you flexibility in your routine. They include:
- Nylon Floss: This is what most people picture when they hear “traditional floss.” You can choose between waxed or unwaxed versions, depending on the level of comfort and control you want.
- Monofilament Floss: While nylon floss is made from multiple strands, monofilament floss is a single fiber, so it doesn’t fray or break.
- Satin Tape: Wider than most floss types, satin tape can cover a larger surface area, making it great for people with bigger gaps. It’s also ultra-smooth and gentle.
- 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.
Water Flossers: What You Should Know
Water flossers are a traditional floss alternative that uses a pressurized stream of water instead of a string to clean between the teeth. Most have a motor, pump, reservoir, hose, wand, and tip, though there are cordless and manual models as well.
The stream of water is gentle enough that it won’t damage your teeth and gums, but powerful enough to eliminate plaque and food particles. You can use a water flosser with one hand, and they require less dexterity than floss. However, they’re hard to take on the go and, while they clean faster, they require more care than disposable string floss.
Types of Water Flossers
Just like with traditional string floss, there are different types of water flossers. Each comes with unique benefits and drawbacks.
- Countertop: This is the most common type of water flosser, and it’s pretty powerful. It sits on your bathroom countertop and you have to keep it plugged in, plus refill and clean the irrigation tank with each use.
- Shower: If you are someone who prefers to brush their teeth in the shower, this water flosser is for you. It connects to the showerhead and doesn’t require electricity, but installation can be tricky.
- Faucet: This type of water flosser is similar to the shower option, except it attaches to the faucet of your bathroom sink. Installation is still tricky, but you don’t have to refill the reservoir or plug it in.
- Cordless: Designed for portability, cordless water flossers integrate the reservoir into the wand. The big downsides with this option are the lack of power and the minimal reservoir capacity.
- Manual: Typically for people who need to floss gently, these water picks have the reservoir built into the wand, but rather than using a motor and pump, you use a plunger to push the water through the tip.
Do Water Flossers Really Work?
Whenever an innovative option steps up to replace a tried-and-true method, people can get skeptical. But water flossers aren’t exactly new; they were invented in 1962. The earliest versions weren’t super effective, but experts have perfected their designs and technology over the years.
Now, the American Dental Association approves of water flossers as a floss alternative, and they give their Seal of Acceptance to the ones they feel represent the best of the best. Research shows that water flossers aren’t just equal to dental floss, but they often work even better, removing more plaque in less time. And since water flossers are easier to use, people are more likely to use them consistently than string floss, improving long-term outcomes.
How String Floss and Water Flossers Compare
The experts agree: the best way to floss is with a tool meant for interdental cleaning, whether it’s string floss, a water flosser, or something else. No option is always better than others; it’s about selecting the one that best matches your preferences and needs. Here’s how they stack up.
|Effectiveness||Considered highly effective when used properly||Considered highly effective even when used imperfectly|
|Ease of Use||Somewhat difficult to use, requires two hands and dexterity||Easy to use with just one hand, does not require significant dexterity|
|Orthodontic Patients||Difficult to use with appliances||Comes with special tips for cleaning appliances|
|Comfort||Can cause bleeding gums and finger pain||The spray can sometimes be uncomfortable|
|Mess||Does not create a mess||Might create a mess, especially when used wrong|
|Space||Compact and easy to store||Most models take up significant space|
|Maintenance||No maintenance required||Requires daily maintenance plus routine cleaning|
|Portability||Easy to take anywhere and doesn’t require power||Most options are not portable, many need a power source, and you must use them over a sink or in a shower|
|Environmental Impact||Single use||Can be used for years|
|ADA Approval||Many options are ADA approved||Many options are ADA approved|
|Cost||Usually $5 or less, but you need to replace it often||$40+ but can last for many years|
|Time Investment||Takes 5+ minutes per session plus prep||Takes about two minutes per session plus prep and cleaning|
Ultimately, you’ll probably gravitate toward one option or the other. What’s most important is that you floss once a day using an ADA-approved tool — not toothpicks, your nails, or other items that might damage the teeth and gums.
What the Research Says
If none of the features above sway you one way or the other, you could always consult the research. Depending on the study, water flossers either deliver results that are statistically similar to string floss or remove plaque even better.
But there is more to flossing than just eliminating plaque. It also keeps your gums healthy. Water flossers are often considered more effective at reducing gingivitis and stopping bleeding gums. So, if you have no preference one way or the other, consider trying a water flosser.
Other Interdental Cleaning Options
Something else to keep in mind is that this is not a binary choice: either use string floss or get a water flosser. There are other interdental cleaning methods to consider as well.
- 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: These tools look like the brushes you would use to clean reusable straws. They can brush between the teeth, under appliances, and along the gum line to eliminate plaque.
- Floss Picks: If you like floss but prefer something easier to maneuver, floss picks might be the right choice for you. They still use string floss, but the pick holds it taut and allows you to floss with one hand.
Which Should You Choose?
Now you have all the information you need to make an informed decision between string floss and water flossers. So, which one is right for you?
Choose a Water Flosser If…
- You have sensitive or bleeding gums
- Wear braces or another appliance
- Have bridgework or a dental implant
- Struggle with dexterity
Choose String Floss If…
- You are already comfortable with it
- You need something compact and portable
- Your dentist has recommended it
- Affordability is a priority
Do your research, consider your priorities, weigh all your options, and choose the best floss option for you. But no matter which one you choose, the most important thing is flossing consistently. Include it in your daily oral hygiene routine and you’ll keep the spaces between your teeth and along your gum line healthy — and your smile will thank you for it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do dentists approve of water flossers?
It might vary depending on who you ask. With that said, the American Dental Association approves of them and even recommends them over traditional floss in many circumstances. It’s always a good idea to get personal feedback, though, so ask your dentist for their opinion.
How often should I use a water flosser?
Use a water flosser just as often as you would string floss. For most people, that’s once per day. Be sure to use the right technique to get the best possible results.
Can a water flosser damage the teeth or gums?
It’s highly unlikely. You would need to use it frequently and aggressively, and even then, it might not be possible. String floss, on the other hand, can cause damage if you use it too often or for too long per session.
Are there alternatives to string floss and water flossers?
Yes. If you don’t like floss, you probably won’t like flossers. The same is true for air flossers if you dislike water flossers. But this still leaves interdental brushes as an option.
Are toothpicks an acceptable alternative?
If you are in a restaurant and need to dislodge a bit of food, yes. However, they are not an alternative to string floss or water flossers. They aren’t considered very effective, and they can damage the teeth and gums.
Should I brush, floss, or use mouthwash first?
This is mostly a matter of personal preference, though some research says you should floss, then rinse with mouthwash, then brush. If you’d rather use mouthwash last, wait at least an hour after brushing so you don’t rinse away the fluoride from your toothpaste.
What’s the best time of day to floss?
The most important thing is to floss once a day, no matter the time or the tool you use. Choose a time that works well with your schedule so you’re less likely to forget or put it off.
Do I need to tell my dentist if flossing hurts?
Yes, you should. Most likely, there is nothing to worry about, but it can also signal some serious issues. Get checked just in case.
Should I be concerned if my floss is always fraying and breaking?
It isn’t always an issue. Sometimes, it’s just low-quality floss, but it could also mean you have a chip, crack, or rough edge on a tooth or restoration.
Can I floss so much I damage my teeth and gums?
Yes, though this is more likely with string floss and flossers than water or air flossers. Only floss once a day unless your dentist says otherwise.