Toss The Floss Challenge

Apr 08 2017

Toss The Floss Challenge

Toss The Floss Challenge

I get it — flossing is annoying.

So, thanks to recent news stories saying flossing doesn’t work, I’m not surprised that parents are asking if they should toss the floss.

In case you missed it, the Associated Press asked the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture for evidence that flossing works.

Reporters examined research from the past decade and concluded the evidence for flossing is “’weak, very unreliable,’” and that most studies don’t show flossing is effective for plaque removal.

It wasn’t long before other outlets — NPR, the BBC and Forbes, to name a few — also picked up the story.

What’s more, the federal government has long recommended flossing in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are issued every five years. The flossing recommendation was missing from its most recent report in 2015.

So, did the AP simply tell the public what it wanted to hear – that flossing isn’t important, and those sneaky dentists are wrong?

Before you toss the floss, consider a few points:

  • The lack of support for flossing doesn’t necessarily mean there’s evidence for notflossing. The AP reported that careless flossing, for instance, can cause harm in the form of damaged gums, teeth and dental work – or can loosen bad bacteria that can enter the bloodstream, leading to what’s called bacteremia. But really – where’s the evidence? I contacted the AP and they were nice enough to send me their source. It was a 332 page document which said nothing to the effect of flossing causing bacteremia any more than brushing would in the general public.
  • It probably won’t surprise you that few people spend time studying flossing. Need a reason for the lack of research? Think about it — when you get into a prestigious university and earn the privilege of doing research, you really think about your topic – and will likely study something interesting that inspires you. For instance, I studied genetic defects that cause a condition that gives people soft teeth and brittle bones. I felt good doing my research, learned a ton and helped people along the way. While I could have studied the effects of sliding string between teeth, I compare that to being first inside Best Buy on Black Friday, getting to choose any super-cool gadget, then leaving with a flip-phone and a pack of M&M’s.
  • There’s evidence that flossing has benefits – it’s just not perfect and clear-cut. Studies done in labs confirm this, but there are big challenges to duplicating those studies in the real world. For one, there isn’t enough funding to shadow people 24/7 and make sure they’re flossing enough – and doing it correctly. In fact, one of the flaws of flossing studies is that the data is based on self-reporting, which can be inaccurate. There’s also the ethical issue of doing research with a control group – whose members don’t floss for the sake of research. That doesn’t pass the ethics standards set by International Review Boards of most research institutions.

On the plus side, the AP story – and the conversation that’s ensued – has brought attention to this issue, and may make flossing sexier to study.

I learned during my own schooling that research is really valuable, but it can always be challenged and sometimes manipulated. In the end, the ultimate test may not be what the latest research can prove, but rather, what does flossing do for you. Do you see plaque removed – and do you want that stuff in there? When you skip flossing for a while and start again, do your gums bleed? Do you like bleeding gums, and will routine flossing make it stop?

My thought — if you aren’t sure about the benefits, see what flossing –or lack thereof — does for you. One might call it a Toss The Floss Challenge- at your own risk. From there, make your own decision.

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