Floss! Or risk getting cavities between your teeth. That’s what dentists have been telling us for years. Yet, the Associated Press released a report yesterday that calls into question dental floss’ efficacy at removing bacteria and preventing tooth decay. This report also details a change in the government’s stance on flossing, and cast a shadow of doubt on the initial studies that gave rise to its popularity.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, annually published by the federal government, has included details on flossing since 1979. In 2015, the Associated Press asked the Departments of Health and Human Services for evidence supporting their recommendations of flossing in an oral health regimen. Not only were these guidelines removed from this year’s issuance, but in a letter to the AP, the government admitted that the benefits of flossing had never been thoroughly researched, as required by law.
The AP’S FINDINGS
The Associated Press focused on 25 studies that compared brushing alone against a combination of brushing and flossing. The AP found evidence for flossing to be “weak, very unreliable, and of “very low” quality, and described evidence supporting the ADA‘s claims as outdated. It then claimed that previous studies involved too small of a sample size to be considered authoritative.
Companies that produce dental products were quick to try and dispute the finding. Procter & Gamble, in an attempt to bolster its claim about dental floss, cited a two-week study, was ultimately discounted as irrelevant by a 2011 review. The AP also sent Johnson & Johnson spokesman Marc Boston a list of evidence contradicting the company’s views on the efficacy of dental floss, to which he declined to comment.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT NEWS?
The government and corporations haven’t been alone in pushing dental floss. Over 159,000 dentists make up the American Dental Association, which has been promoting the use of floss since 1908, shortly after it was patented. A product with that kind of clout can usually be found at the root of big business, and this case is no exception. The global market for floss now spans over $2 billion dollars, with 50 percent of that coming from the U.S. alone.
Many schools integrate a Health/P.E. program to teach students the importance of dental hygiene. These programs bring in local dentists to instruct students how to brush and floss twice a day to keep plaque away. Before they leave for the day, students are offered a toothbrush, a name-brand fluoride toothpaste, and of course, a pack of dental floss. That’s how ingrained this product is in our everyday lives.
SHOULD YOU STILL FLOSS?
Rushing to floss’ defense, the American Dental Association just today reiterated its importance as “an essential part of taking care of your teeth and gums.” Many dental professionals acknowledge the weak supporting evidence behind daily flossing but use an “it doesn’t hurt so go ahead and keep doing it” approach.
National Institutes of Health dentist Tim Iafolla acknowledged that if the past reviews were held to the highest standards, organizations such as the ADA would likely have to drop the floss guidelines. Yet he still believes Americans should still floss, as there is little risk or cost to do so.