How to use dental floss. -

Directions for proper flossing technique. / Pictures, flossing gif. / How often do you need to floss? / Tips and pointers to keep in mind.

This page provides an outline of how to floss your teeth. We've broken it down into the following two sections:

Another source for flossing animations.

Our sister website also has a section that does a good job of explaining flossing technique.

The animations there are more sophisticated than the ones featured on this page but they require that your browser supports Flash. Most mobile devices do not.

Proper technique for flossing your teeth.

Step #1 - How to hold the floss.

As trifling as it sounds, a really important part of setting the stage so your flossing efforts are as effective as possible has to do with the way you hold your floss.

Picture #1 - Hold the floss using your middle two fingers.

How to hold dental floss on your hands.

(But use a longer piece, on the order of 18 inches or so.)

The problem:

A lot of people try to hold the floss with the same fingers they use to manipulate it.

While this may work well enough for some front teeth, doing so tends to make it hard, if not impossible, to reach back ones.

Proper technique:

The better way is to hold the floss on your middle two fingers (like shown in Picture #1).

Doing so frees up your thumbs and index fingers so their only job is to manipulate the floss. Separating these two tasks (holding/working) makes effective flossing easier to accomplish.

Picture #2

How to hold the floss with your index fingers and thumbs.

Manipulate the floss using different combinations of your thumbs and index fingers.

Step #2 - Working the floss.

As just stated, using your middle digits on each hand to hold the floss leaves your index fingers and thumbs free to manipulate it and work it in between each of your teeth.

As you do, you'll find that you'll need to use different finger and thumb combinations to be able to reach different areas of your mouth.

  • Using all four digits. - There probably won't be many locations where you'll use both hands' thumb and index finger to work the floss (Picture #2).

    You may find that you can clean between some of your front teeth this way. But more than likely you'll find this method cumbersome.

Picture #3

Working the floss between teeth with just two index fingers.

Cup the floss around each tooth as much as possible.

  • Using both index fingers. - A way that works well with lower teeth, especially back ones, is to stretch the floss tightly over the tip of your index fingers (see Picture #3). Which of the two is positioned inside your mouth will change as you switch from right to left side.

    Notes: Since proper technique involves maximizing the amount of tooth surface that gets cleansed (see below), push the floss toward the back of your mouth so it wraps around the front side of the tooth to the rear when cleaning it (Picture #3). And then pull it forward so it wraps around the backside of the other tooth when cleaning it.

  • One thumb and one index finger. - With upper teeth, a good way of doing things is to draw the floss tightly over the tip of one index finger and the tip of the thumb on the other hand (which digits are chosen will simply depend on if you're right or left handed).

    Using this method, position your index finger inside your mouth and the thumb outside as you work your way around your teeth.

Can't you just use a floss holder?

Well yes, that's a possibility. The effectiveness of your flossing activity simply relies on how you work it around once it's in between your teeth. And in theory you could accomplish this with a floss-holding device.

By-hand probably makes the better choice.

Certainly the use of a holder might make proper flossing possible for people with a disability or limited dexterity.

But for the average person, ask your dentist or hygienist (people who really know what needs to get accomplished when flossing) what they think. Ask if they personally use a floss holder or consider it a first-choice for most people. We'd be very surprised if they do on either account.

Picture #4

Let the dental floss snugly wrap the side of the tooth.

Maximize the amount of tooth surface the floss scrubs.

Step #3 - Maximize the amount of tooth surface that gets cleansed.

We've already alluded to this point above but as you slide your floss up and down (see below for instructions) pull it tightly against each tooth's side so it wraps around and scrapes plaque off as much total surface area as possible (Picture #4).

If you haven't realized this already, that means that between any two teeth you will be cleaning each one with a separate set of motions (flossing the side of one tooth, then the other).

This point is fundamental to effective flossing.

Wrapping the floss is a very important part of carrying out proper technique. And unfortunately a concept that a great number of people never seem to grasp.

Effective flossing can't be accomplished by just snapping it between your teeth and then back out. You must place it between them and then deliberately draw it up against the side of each one individually, scrubbing as much of each tooth's surface as possible.

Step #4 - Clean the full length of each tooth.

Another fundamental aspect of proper flossing technique is that as you work the floss up and down the entire side of each tooth must be scrubbed. That includes the part that lies below the gum line.

When you floss there are two important locations that must be cleaned.

1) The contact area.

Dental plaque has a tendency to accumulate right at and below the area where any two teeth touch (their "contact point"). And it's important to clean this region because it's precisely the spot where cavities are most likely to form between teeth.

The good news is that just the act of flossing (using proper or even improper technique) tends to dislodge, or at least disrupt, plaque that's accumulated in this area.

Picture #5 - This gif shows cleaning the contact and subgingival areas.

Flossing under the gum line (subgingival flossing).

(The floss' pressure is always kept against the tooth and never directed onto gum tissue.)

2) Underneath the gum line.

The other location that's paramount to clean is the portion of each tooth that lies underneath its gum line.

Dental plaque that accumulates in this area will have a big impact on gum health. And since so many people tend to have problems with gum disease, flossing thoroughly in this region should be a prime consideration.

What you need to do.

Bringing the floss straight down between two teeth will just bump onto gum tissue. And doing that really does nothing towards cleaning this area.

It's only by drawing the floss snugly up against the side of each tooth (wrapping it) and sliding it up and down its full length repeatedly (two or three strokes), that insures that subgingival (below the gum line) dental plaque is scraped away.

! Keep the pressure of the floss up against the side of your tooth.

When flossing, always keep the pressure of the string directed against the side of your tooth, never draw it onto your gum tissue.

You don't floss your gums, you floss your teeth. Directing the pressure of the dental floss onto your gum tissue will only serve to traumatize it.

Step #5 - Finishing up.

Once you've cleaned between two teeth, ideally you'll just bring the floss back up past their contact point and on out.

Avoiding trouble.

If when removing the floss you notice that it seems as if it wants to get hung up, just let go with one hand and pull it on out to the side.

Possibly this method leaves a greater amount of plaque behind. But that minor loss in flossing efficiency is a small price to pay as compared to getting it stuck or pulling out some of your dental work.

Shift to a new section of floss.

It's best form to shift to a new section of floss before cleaning your next pair of teeth. The way to do this is simply unwind the floss from one hand and taking up the slack on the other.

The idea is that after being used to clean a location the section might be frayed. Also, this process helps to minimize transferring bacteria from one location to another.

Rinse out afterward.

Once you're completely finished, it's not a bad idea to rinse out with water. Flossing dislodges plaque from your teeth. Rinsing helps to remove it from your mouth.

Tips, pointers and things about flossing you need to know.

How often do you need to floss?

To maintain good oral health, proper flossing needs to be performed on a daily basis. Here are two reasons why:

1) Once-a-day flossing is based on the rate at which dental plaque reforms.

The goal of flossing your teeth is to scrub dental plaque off their surface. Once this task has been completed, plaque will start to reform immediately. It generally takes about 24 hours for it to form fully, hence the once-a-day recommendation for flossing your teeth.

2) Daily flossing helps to minimize tartar accumulation.

When left undisturbed, plaque can transform into dental tartar. Tartar is simply calcified plaque. The minerals needed for the calcification process come from saliva and other oral fluids.

The initial stages of the transformation of plaque into tartar can take place in as little as 24 to 72 hours. Once it has fully formed it really can't be brushed or flossed off. For this reason, it's important to floss daily so dental plaque is cleansed away before it ever has a chance to begin the calcification process.

When should you floss?

  • The best time to floss is whenever you have enough available time to do it properly.
  • Since saliva flow (and therefore the protections it provides) diminishes when we sleep, flossing at bedtime makes a good plan.

Should you brush or floss first?

It doesn't really matter all that much. The important thing is that you do both. Having said that however ...

  • The act of flossing dislodges debris but it may still remain in between or around your teeth. Brushing after flossing (and especially the spitting out and rinsing routine that frequently follows brushing) will help to insure that this loose debris is removed from your mouth.
  • Toothpaste ingredients (like fluoride) will be more effective if they have direct access to tooth surfaces (as opposed to them being covered with plaque).

Which teeth are the most important to floss?

The old joke is you only need to floss the teeth you want to keep, so you really need to clean all of yours, every time.

And don't overlook the fact that floss can be used to clean some tooth surfaces that don't have a neighboring tooth. This includes the backside of your last molars. Or teeth adjacent to spaces due to missing or lost teeth.

What kind of floss should you use?

Two of the most important factors to consider when choosing a type or brand of floss are:

  • How easy is it to get the floss between your teeth? - If your tooth contacts tend to be tight (meaning it's hard to get your floss through them), experiment with using very-fine, waxed or teflon (Glide®) floss as a solution.
  • Is the size of the floss appropriate for the amount of space that exists between your teeth? - If you've had some gum recession and the spaces between your teeth are comparatively large, dental tape or very thick, yarn-like floss may do a better job at cleaning these areas.

    For young people or those who have not experienced any recession, fine or even very-fine floss is probably the better choice.

Waxed or unwaxed?

The preferred choice is simply the one you find easiest to get between your teeth and use.

  • In theory, since the individual fibers of unwaxed floss are loose and free, as you wrap the floss against tooth surfaces they will conform to the shape of your tooth more closely, and therefore clean more effectively.

But does this really matter? Probably not, especially if you find waxed floss easier to use and therefore are more likely to floss regularly if you use it.

Can you reuse a piece of dental floss?

As long as it's in good shape (isn't frayed or shredded) you can consider reusing it.

  • Rinse it off and then drape it somewhere where it can dry out between uses. (Oral bacteria have difficulty surviving in dry environments.)
Some feel reusing floss is a bad idea.

We must report that contrary to what we state above the American Dental Association doesn't recommend reusing dental floss, so you'll need to make your own decision about this issue.

  • A part of their stance has to do with the condition of once-used floss and its cleaning effectiveness.
  • Another is that "it may deposit bacteria in the mouth." (Meaning bacteria picked up previously by the floss are redeposited back into the mouth.)

In regard to the latter, we're unclear how floss would differ substantially from reusing a toothbrush (which is standard procedure for everyone). However we would agree (and similar as with your toothbrush) that you shouldn't share a piece of floss with someone else.

What about gum tissue bleeding and tenderness?

If you notice that your gums bleed or are tender when you floss, it's typically a sign that you're not doing it frequently enough, or else you're using an ineffective or improper technique. It's almost never a sign that you should discontinue flossing.

Having said that, if after a week or two of practicing correct, diligent and thorough flossing you still notice regions that bleed, you should consult with your dentist so they can evaluate your situation and recommend a remedy.

The solution may be as simple as a routine dental cleaning. In other cases it may be an indication of more serious gum problems. And as disappointing as that may be, the fact that you now have a proper flossing habit in place makes the long-term outlook for your condition after treatment as favorable as possible (regular flossing makes relapse less likely).

Demonstrate for your dentist how you floss.

It's difficult for a website to fully explain all of the nuances of flossing. So our advice to you would be to study the information on this page and then at your next appointment demonstrate your interpretation of our instructions to your dentist or dental hygienist. That way they can evaluate and refine your technique as is required for your specific situation.

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