You may have heard (or cracked) the old joke about flossing regularly: at least twice a year the night before each of your biannual teeth cleanings, right? However, daily flossing is a crucial part of a healthy smile. Tooth flossing is a 60-second ritual that can actually make or break your oral health. Here’s why.

How important is it to floss?

So, just how important is it to floss? Even before toothpaste or mouthwash, tooth flossing alone removes up to 40% of plaque, the sticky bacterial film that adheres sugars and acids to our teeth, that causes tooth decay. And, heads up, 40% is a lot.

When this plaque lingers on teeth and pools around the gumline, gingivitis can result. The first step on the road to tooth loss, gingivitis can cause bleeding, sensitive gums, and bad breath. Regular tooth flossing helps to remove sticky plaque before it hardens into tartar that must be removed.

And tooth loss due to periodontal disease like gingivitis is no joke. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research has found that even with advances in fluoridated water and dental hygiene, the rate of tooth loss in people in the U.S. continues to rise. Adults between the ages of 20 and 64 have lost an average of seven adult teeth, and nearly 4% of the same age group have no teeth left at all.

Risks of not flossing

Besides tooth loss, there are plenty of other reasons to floss (and some really unexpected ones at that):

  • Complications in pregnancy: Pregnant women with poor oral health are more likely to have low birth weight babies and experience preterm birth. In addition, infants born to mothers with poor dental hygiene are more likely to have cavities.
  • Bad breath: Food particles stuck between teeth begin to decay and smell. All the breath mints and gum in the world cannot cover this smell, which will only get worse as the tooth begins to decay as well.
  • Potential link to heart disease: While there is still some debate over whether or not periodontal and heart disease are linked, there is some evidence that inflammation in the gums can be connected to inflammation in other areas of the body, particularly the heart. Other researchers have found that people with periodontal disease even have thickened blood vessels in their necks, restricting blood flow.
  • Erectile dysfunction: Fifty-three percent of men with erectile dysfunction had some level of periodontal disease, as compared to 23% of men who had perfectly healthy teeth and no erectile dysfunction.

As research has shown, gingivitis and flossing (or not) are intricately connected pieces in the puzzle of overall health.

How do you floss your teeth properly?

When you resolve to make flossing a regular part of your day, it’s important to floss properly. Follow these steps for proper tooth flossing.

  1. Use enough floss. You will need about 18 inches of floss. Wind excess floss around each of your middle fingers.
  2. Your thumb and forefingers are going to guide the floss.
  3. Gently ease floss between each tooth. You can form a “C” shape around the tooth with the floss and rub up around the top of the tooth between it and the gumline, and then down the side of the tooth to remove plaque or stuck food particles.
  4. Repeat this on every tooth, and don’t forget to floss the backside of each back tooth.
  5. As your floss becomes used or dirty, release a little more from your middle fingers so that you are working with clean floss on each tooth.

Waterpiks vs. flossing?

For people with extra sensitive gums or other conditions that make flossing difficult or painful, they may choose to use a waterpik. Waterpiks use a thin stream of directed water to gently loosen and remove food particles from between the teeth. There is no picking and scraping, and waterpiks rarely cause bleeding or increased sensitivity.

Waterpik vs. flossing is a debate among dentists and dental hygienists as to which is most effective, however.

On one hand, tooth flossing is safe, effective, and affordable. It can be done anywhere, anytime, with very little effort. The expense of a waterpik is one downside, though, as is the fact that a waterpik is not at all porta