Federal health officials have backtracked on decades worth of hounding from dental health professionals that using dental floss is a necessary tool in fighting plaque, cavities, and gum disease. The federal government has recommended daily flossing — preferably after every meal — since 1979, but there is no real evidence that proves the practice is effective.
Globally, consumers have spent close to $2 billion on dental floss based on the belief that flossing protects us from gum disease and cavities, prevents plaque buildup, and fights halitosis, but there has never been a valid study proving that as a fact, according to an investigation headed by the Associated Press.
The Associated Press report suggests that despite the advice from doctors and dentists that daily flossing is a necessary part of health care, that claim has never been studied properly in the 37 years the practice has been endorsed. When the AP asked the department of Health and Human Services for evidence that proved flossings benefits, they received no response — the same went for the Department of Agriculture. A written request under the Freedom of Information Act also went unanswered. Then, without notice, federal officials omitted the recommendation from this year’s health guidelines without any notice, with an acknowledgment that the effectiveness of daily flossing has never been researched.
By law, government or dietary guidelines are updated every five years and have to be supported by scientific evidence, but 37 years later, that has yet to be done.
The Associated Press investigation looked at 25 studies from the past decade and found that when comparing brushing versus the combination of brushing and flossing, the results were “weak” and “very unreliable” and that the tests conducted were of “low quality” and carried a “moderate to large potential for bias,” explains AP writer Jeff Donn.
“The two leading professional groups—the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Periodontology, for specialists in gum disease and implants—cited other studies as proof of their claims that flossing prevents buildup of gunk known as plaque, early gum inflammation called gingivitis, and tooth decay. However, most of these studies used outdated methods or tested few people. Some lasted only two weeks, far too brief for a cavity or dental disease to develop. One tested 25 people after only a single use of floss. Such research, like the reviewed studies, focused on warning signs like bleeding and inflammation, barely dealing with gum disease or cavities.”
Despite acknowledging the weak scientific evidence and short study duration, Wayne Aldredge, the president of the periodontists’ group, still wants patients to floss to prevent gum disease.
“It’s like building a house and not painting two sides of it, ultimately ths bose two sides are going to rot away quicker.”
Alderage also says that many people floss incorrectly by sawing back and forth instead of moving up and down the sides of teeth. He also says that flossing can be detrimental when done incorrectly or too enthusiastically, causing damage to gums, teeth, and dental work.
The Associated Press investigation also found that dental floss manufacturers aren’t able to provide evidence that flossing is instrumental in preventive care either, which is enlightening because companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble fund a great deal of the unsubstantiated research.
Dental floss was invented in the early 1900s by dentist Levi Spear Parmly, and the American Dental Association has been touted its benefits since 1908. Floss makers seek ADA approval through its Seal of Approval program (which they pay for) because consumers trust the ADA’s recommendation when looking to purchase dental products.
Tim Iafolla, a dentist with the National Institute of Health, says that we should still floss despite acknowledging it might be appropriate to drop the floss guidelines.
“It’s low risk, low cost, we know there’s a possibility that it works, so we feel comfortable telling people to go ahead and do it,” he explained.
[Image via Shutterstock]