Here’s the Right Way to Floss Your Teeth

Your toothbrush can’t reach the area where your teeth meet your gum line
Person flossing teeth with a long piece of floss wrapped around their fingers.

You probably already know that you’re supposed to be brushing your teeth twice a day. But if you’re brushing without flossing, you’re not keeping your teeth as clean as you could be. Dental floss can get under your gum line in a way that the bristles on your toothbrush simply can’t.

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“A lot of us have never really been shown how to properly brush and floss,” says periodontist Sasha Ross, DMD, MS. “So, just having your dentist or hygienist tell you to do it isn’t enough. You have to know how to do it.”

She walks you through the right way to floss, how often to do it and what can happen if you don’t.

This is the proper way to floss

First things first: You should be doing the majority of your flossing with string floss, the kind that you hold and wind around your fingers.

Those little plastic dental picks are OK in a pinch, like if you have something stuck between your teeth while you’re out to eat, but your regular flossing should be done the old-fashioned way. (The exception here, Dr. Ross says, is if you have hand dexterity issues. “If you have a disorder that keeps you from being able to grip the floss, picks are a good alternative,” she notes.)

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“Studies have shown no difference in unwaxed or waxed floss,” Dr. Ross adds, “but I personally prefer unwaxed, as it seems to be a little bit more effective.” If you have braces, however, waxed floss may be a better choice, as it’s less likely to get stuck or torn than wax-free versions.

Here are the steps to flossing your teeth the right way:

  1. Ready your floss. Dispense a piece of dental floss that’s about as long as the distance between your shoulders. This should give you one to two inches of floss to work with, plus enough to wrap around your thumb and forefingers for a tight grip. (Don’t wind it tightly enough to cut off your circulation, though. Ouch!)
  2. Position the floss between your teeth. The goal is to reach the area where each tooth meets your gum line — a spot your toothbrush can’t get to. “You want to sort of cup the floss around your tooth,” Dr. Ross explains. Think about trying to form a C shape with the floss, with your tooth in the center.
  3. Use an up-and-down motion. Now it’s time to get to work. Rub the dental floss up and down a few times on either side of the triangular gum area, which is called the papilla. Repeat this action as you move from tooth to tooth, using a clean section of floss for each tooth.
  4. Be gentle! Don’t jam or force the floss into your gums, which can cause bleeding. But note that if you don’t floss often, your gums may bleed, even if you’re gentle. “In most cases, if you stick with it and use the right technique, the bleeding will stop after a week or so,” Dr. Ross says. “Just make sure you’re not traumatizing your gum tissue and pressing too hard or at the wrong angle.”
  5. Ask for help. We get it: Some people are visual learners. If you’re following these steps but still aren’t sure you’re flossing correctly, have your dentist or hygienist weigh in the next time you go in for a cleaning. “Ask them to watch how you floss,” Dr. Ross suggests. “They can show you what you need to do to be more effective at cleaning your teeth.”

Why flossing is so important

Good oral health means more than just a nice, white smile. Oral health is linked to whole-body health, which means that problems with your teeth and gums can lead to other health concerns like heart disease, stroke and more.

“Flossing is incredibly important because studies have shown that brushing just doesn’t get to the area in between your teeth,” Dr. Ross states. “If you’re not getting the plaque there, it can lead to cavities or periodontal disease or both.”

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Periodontal disease is associated with an increased risk of:

  • Diabetes.
  • Heart disease.
  • Lung disease.
  • Stroke.
  • Arthritis.

How often should you floss?

The American Dental Association recommends brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day. Of course, if you feel like you’ve got a big ole leaf of spinach stuck between your chompers after lunch, there’s no need to wait!

And in this case, practice makes perfect. “If you’re initially struggling, don’t give up,” Dr. Ross says. “Look in the mirror when you’re doing it, and lean on your dentist, periodontist or hygienist for extra instruction, if you need it.”

To learn more on this topic from Dr. Ross, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode “Keeping Your Mouth Healthy.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday. 

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