How to use dental floss.
This page provides an outline of how to floss your teeth. We’ve broken it down into the following two sections:
- The steps of proper flossing technique. – Illustrations and gifs showing what you need to do.
- When and how often do you need to floss? – This section answers these questions and provides additional flossing tips and pointers you should know about. It also explains the reasoning that lies behind them.
Another source for flossing animations.
Our sister website Dental-Picture-Show.com 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.
- 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.
- The better way is to wrap the floss around your middle two fingers (like shown in Picture #1).
Picture #1 – Hold the floss using your middle two fingers.
(But use a longer piece, on the order of 18 inches or so.)
You’ll need to use a long enough piece.
Start out with using a piece that’s about a foot and a half long (18 inches or so). Later on, you’ll develop a sense for precisely how much (more or less) you actually need to use.
Manipulate the floss using different combinations of your thumbs and index fingers.
Step #2 – Working the floss between your teeth.
As you do, you’ll find that you’ll need to use various finger and thumb combinations (see descriptions below) to be able to reach all of the different areas of your mouth.
Sliding the floss between your teeth.
When inserting dental floss between any two teeth, ease it in gently so it doesn’t snap down and traumatize your gums. If you have difficulty in getting the floss to go, use a slight back-and-forth (seesaw) motion. Doing so will help it to slide through the contact point between the teeth.
Flossing finger combinations.
- 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.
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.
The use of a holder might make a good or at least reasonable choice for people who have limited dexterity or a physical disability, large hands, a strong gag reflex or even those who just can’t be motivated to floss by hand.
But for the average person, ask your dentist or dental hygienist what they think (these are people who really know what it takes to get flossing done). Ask them 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 – Maximizing the amount of surface area the floss scrubs.
Pull the floss into a C-shape around the tooth.
Step #3 – Maximize the amount of tooth surface that gets cleansed.
Wrap the floss across the tooth’s surface.
Doing so maximizes the total surface area that the floss will scrape over and remove dental plaque from (Picture #4).
Make sure to clean both teeth.
If you haven’t realized this already, between any two teeth you will need to clean each one using a separate set of motions (flossing the side of one tooth, then the other).
This point is fundamental to effective flossing.
Pulling the floss into a C-shape and then cleaning each tooth individually is a very important aspect of carrying out proper flossing 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) Cleaning 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 (even when using improper technique) tends to dislodge, or at least disrupt, plaque that’s accumulated in this area twice. (Once when the floss first goes in between your teeth and then again when it’s pulled back out.)
Picture #5 – This gif shows subgingival flossing (cleaning under the gum line).
(The full length of the side of the tooth is cleansed. But the floss’ pressure is always kept against the tooth and never directed onto gum tissue.)
2) Cleaning underneath the gum line.
It’s only by drawing the floss snugly up against the side of each tooth (wrapping it into a C-shape) and sliding it up and down its full length repeatedly (two or three strokes), that ensures 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 – Use a fresh section of floss.
Performing proper technique involves the use of a fresh section of floss in every new area that you clean.
This is easy enough to do. You simply need to unwrap the string from the fingers of one hand and then take up this slack by wrapping it onto the fingers of the other. (This is referred to as “spooling” the floss.)
The idea of using a fresh section is twofold:
- Spooling the floss helps to prevent spreading bacteria from one location to the other.
- Floss tends to deteriorate and shred when used. Using a fresh section between each pair of teeth helps to ensure that your efforts produce maximal effectiveness. It also reduces your potential for difficulties, like having your floss get stuck.
Step #6 – 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.
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.
As a best-practice, you should 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 take 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 various 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 ensure 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 vs. unwaxed flosses.
The preferred choice between these two 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.
Mono vs. multifilament flosses.
Recent decades have witnessed the introduction of monofilament dental flosses. These single-strand products are typically made from Teflon (brands include Glide® and SATINfloss®).
- Teflon flosses are less likely to shred when used. They are also more likely to break and come out easily rather than snag on rough dental restorations.
- The slippery nature of Teflon also assists in working this type of floss between your teeth.
Does it matter which kind of floss you use?
For the most part no. By far the most important factor is choosing a type that you find easy to use, so you are more likely to floss frequently and properly.
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. If you do …
- You should 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 some dental authorities, including the American Dental Association (ADA), don’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 potential loss in cleaning efficiency.
- Another is that it “may deposit bacteria in the mouth.” This quote taken from the ADA website seems to refer to bacteria picked up previously by the floss are re-deposited back into the person’s mouth.
What blanket recommendations don’t seem to address.
- In regard to the latter point above, we’re unclear how reusing floss would differ substantially from reusing a toothbrush, which is something we all do every day.
However, we would agree (and similar as with toothbrushes) that you shouldn’t share a piece of floss with someone else. (Doing so might introduce new strains of bacteria into your mouth.)
- We will concede that multi-stranded (multifilament) types of floss do tend to harbor bacteria between their fibers and deteriorate/shred rapidly with use. But we’re not so convinced that this is also true for monofilament types.
After rinsing and drying, we’re not really sure where offending bacteria would find refuge in single-strand products. And even though we realize that they can only withstand so much wear and tear, these flosses are specifically marketed as non-shredding and therefore their suitability for reuse seems likely.
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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