10 things you shouldn't do when you floss your teeth. -

These flossing mistakes make your efforts less effective, or even harmful. | Explanations | Pictures

What you don't do when you floss can be just as important as what you do.

This page contains a list of flossing don'ts, which includes items that tend to decrease flossing effectiveness, or even lead to tooth or gum tissue damage.


#1- Don't think that using mouthwash replaces flossing.

Using mouthwash doesn't replace the need to floss, period. And if you think about it, it's easy enough to understand why.

  • Flossing is a mechanical action (tooth scrubbing) that affects bacterial colonies by stripping them off tooth surfaces.
  • In comparison, using mouthwash is a chemical action. And for all practical purposes, the agent only comes into contact with (and therefore only affects) those bacteria that reside in the surface layer of plaque.


This topic has even come up in court.

In 2005 a US District judge ruled that a well-known manufacturer's claim that the use of their mouthwash replaced flossing was "false and misleading." (Link)

#2- Don't floss a million times a day, just floss once but do it right.

Some people tell their dentist that they floss several times a day. But when their dentist looks in their mouth they see little evidence of it.

The usual problem is that these patients are equating activity with effectiveness. They think they're accomplishing when they're not. As examples:

  • Possibly they have a location that traps food, so they floss it after every time they eat something but nowhere else.
  • Or maybe they floss every time they brush but just the teeth that are easy to reach.

In both cases, the person really is "flossing" a lot, just never thoroughly and effectively. And unfortunately, it's the latter two factors that count the most.

So rather than giving your teeth the once over multiple times a day, look for just one setting where you can take the time to do things right. And if you can do that more than one time a day, all the better.

Can you floss too much?

Not if you're doing it right.

  • If when you floss you do so thoroughly, using a proper technique that's not harmful to your gum tissue, then you can floss as often as you like.
  • If you floss multiple times per day but never once effectively. Excessive flossing will only provide limited benefit, build a false sense of accomplishment and be harmful in the sense that it still allows damage to your teeth and gums to occur.
  • If you floss using a technique that directs pressure onto your gums in a manner that harms them, then yes, flossing excessively would simply amplify the amount of damage that's caused.



Graphic warning not to pull your floss down onto your gum tissue.

Directing pressure onto your gums with floss can hurt or damage them.

#3- Never let the floss put pressure on your gums.

When flossing between two teeth, don't pull the floss straight onto your gum tissue.
  • Doing so does nothing in terms of helping to remove plaque from this area ...
  • ... Instead it just traumatizes your gums. (It will make unhealthy gums bleed and/or hurt.)
  • If you do things this way long enough, you can actually create a damaging cleft or furrow in your gum tissue.

The correct way to use floss between teeth is to pull it up against the side of each one and clean each separately. Remember, you floss your teeth, not your gums.


#4- Don't ignore places that snag or break your floss.

You need to heed the hints that flossing can give you.

The sides of teeth are smooth. So if there's a place where your floss snags, shreds or breaks, something is not right.

  • At a bare minimum, in locations where these types of events occur you won't be able to clean the area effectively. And any plaque that you can't remove will simply increase that location's risk for the formation of tooth decay and/or gum disease.
  • As a worst-case scenario, the area already involves active dental disease and the plaque that gets left behind just feeds that process.


Possible flossing obstacles.

The overhang on this filling interferes with flossing.

Illustration showing how a dental filling with an overhang will interfere with flossing..
a) Dental overhangs.
A common cause of flossing problems can be due to "overhangs."
This term refers to the situation where the edge of dental work (a filling, crown, etc...) isn't contoured correctly and extends abruptly beyond the normal contours of the tooth (see picture).
  • When your floss snags on this type of protrusion it may get stuck, fray or break in two.
  • In some cases, the pressure of the floss may even pull your dental work out. (So to avoid this type of catastrophe, try letting go of one end of your floss and pull it out to the side.)
b) Scenarios involving dental disease.

Beyond man-made problems, existing dental conditions can also be the reason why your floss shreds, traps or breaks.

Illustration showing how the sharp edges of a cavity can shred or break dental floss.

The sharp edges of a cavity can cut dental floss.

1) Cavities.
If tooth decay advances far enough, the hole that results may have sharp edges that interfere with flossing.
So, if a location that historically could be flossed uneventfully is now problematic, you could have a cavity. If you do it will only get worse until you have your dentist make the needed repair, so don't delay in getting it checked out.
2) Tartar.
It's conceivable that floss might snag on dental tartar (calculus) that has built up. Especially in the case where you hadn't been properly flossing the area for a while.

Just like with a cavity, this problem won't take care of itself. You'll need to appoint with your dentist so they can evaluate your situation. If tartar is the culprit, a dental cleaning will be needed.



Illustration pointing out the three areas that are important to clean when you floss.

Flossing away plaque from these three locations is the goal.

#5- Don't fail to clean all 3 must-do locations between your teeth.

When you floss, there are three locations that are important to clean.
  • A) The contact point - Plaque that accumulates where teeth touch is exactly the place where cavities are most likely to form.
  • B) Below the gum line (on one of the two teeth). - Just flossing the contact point does little to disrupt dental plaque that lies at and below the gum line.

    Since this is the plaque accumulation that most affects gum health, disrupting and removing it is important to do.

  • C) Below the gum line (on the other tooth). - The same below-the-gum-line location on the 2nd tooth is important to clean too.

Cleaning areas B and C is referred to as "subgingival" (below the gum line) flossing. Here are details about how to accomplish it.


#6- Don't use too short a piece of floss.

You'll do best using a piece of floss that's longer rather than shorter. Flossing is difficult enough without struggling with your equipment.

Start out with using a piece that's about 18 inches or so.

  • That will give you enough to wrap around your "holding" fingers for a firm grasp.
  • It's also enough that you can release an inch or so from one hand and take up the slack on the other so you have a fresh section to work with as you move on to the next location to clean.

Later on and once your flossing habit has settled in, if 18 inches seems like more than you really need, then use less.


Holding your floss this way makes it hard to floss.

Illustration showing holding dental floss with just each hand's index finger and thumb.

#7- Holding floss this way usually isn't very effective.

Holding your floss with the very same fingers you try to manipulate it with really doesn't work very well.
  • Doing things this way is too cumbersome.
  • You'll have trouble reaching your back teeth.

Divide and conquer is the better way. Hold the floss with some of your fingers and work it around your mouth using others. These instructions describe how: Proper flossing technique.


#8- Don't try to get fancy with your flossing.

Next time you're at your dentist's office and need a good laugh, ask your dentist or hygienist about some of the flossing techniques they've seen patients demonstrate for them.

  • They've probably seen routines where the person tries to floss teeth on both sides of their mouth at the same time.
  • Or else multiple teeth in a row by way of threading floss around several and sawing it back and forth.

It boggles the mind as to what these people think they're doing. And while they may be flossing, there's no question that they're not being thorough and effective.


Picture showing teeth that have large spaces between them and therefore require using a larger-size floss.

Bigger spaces are easier to clean with a larger size floss.

#9- Don't use floss that's too big or tiny for your needs.

The size of the floss you use should generally correspond with the size of the spaces between your teeth.
For large interdental spaces.
Dental tape, woven floss, Superfloss®, knitting yarn or just doubling over your regular floss into two strands can all make good choices.
For normal interdental spaces.

Unwaxed, waxed, Glide® or Satin® flosses can each be suitable choices.


#10- Don't be put off if your gums bleed.

Bleeding gums is your sign that something is wrong. It's an indication that the area can't be or hasn't been cleansed effectively.

  • At a minimum, bleeding gums is a sign of gingivitis (gum tissue inflammation). This condition is reversible if you begin an effective flossing (and brushing) routine. Possibly a good dental cleaning is needed too.
  • At the other extreme, the bleeding you experience may be a symptom of periodontitis (advanced gum disease that involves both gum tissue and the bone underneath).

    This condition can't be expected to resolve without treatment from your dentist. But having an effective flossing habit in place (along with good brushing) means that the treatment they provide is much less likely to relapse.

With either scenario, continued flossing, as opposed to discontinuing your routine because it makes your gums bleed, is a big part of the solution.

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