How does flossing help to prevent tooth decay and gum disease?

Practicing effective flossing technique involves a lot more than just slipping dental floss between your teeth and then back out.

Instead, it requires the use of the floss in a very specific manner. One where it's used to scrub and thoroughly clean all of the tooth surfaces it can reach.

Why is this needed?

While it may not surprise you to learn that tooth decay and gum disease can be prevented by flossing, you may not fully understand the process involved with each. And how flossing ineffectually can leave you at risk for both.

Locations where dental plaque accumulates between teeth.

When it comes to understanding how plaque causes gum disease and cavities, it helps to think of it as occupying one of two generalized locations. They are:

  • That region right at and below the point of contact between two teeth. (Pointed out by the upper blue arrow in our diagram.)
  • That space that exists between a tooth and the gum tissue that surrounds it. (Pointed out by the lower blue arrow in our diagram.)

[Of course, this categorization is too simplistic. Dental plaque forms a continuous film, of varying thickness, on all in-between-the-teeth tooth surfaces. But these two areas are especially notable and problematic.]

A) How flossing helps to prevent tooth decay.

Cavity formation can only take place during those periods when a tooth's surface is covered with dental plaque.

  • When dental plaque is present, the decay process has a chance to progress.
  • When this same tooth surface is plaque free, a healing mechanism may take place that helps to reverse the effects of cavity formation. (A process called remineralization.)

That's why you brush and floss.

As far as preventing tooth decay goes, this is pretty much what tooth brushing and using dental floss is all about.

These activities help to minimize the amount of time dental plaque is on teeth so the scales are always tipped in favor of the healing process rather than cavity formation.

Why using floss is so important.

A location that's particularly vulnerable to cavity formation is the point of contact between teeth. (The circled area in our diagram.)

Fortunately, almost any flossing technique, even the most haphazard, tends to clean this region. That's good because this is an area where the bristles of a toothbrush can't reach.

The in-between-the-teeth portion of a tooth's surface that lies beyond the contact point can be at risk for decay too. This area, however, takes more effort to clean. Only a technique that includes pulling the dental floss up against the tooth's surface and working it up and down will be effective in doing so.

B) How flossing helps to prevent gum disease.

The dental plaque that accumulates on a tooth's surface at and below its gum line can cause gum disease.


Dental plaque contains bacteria, as well as the waste products and toxins they create.

Each of these is a tissue irritant that can trigger an inflammatory response in gum tissue.

Some of the signs of this inflammation (gum disease) are tissue redness and swelling. Additionally, inflamed gums are often tender and tend to bleed when a person brushes or flosses their teeth.

What flossing technique is needed to prevent it?

Many people, including a large portion of those people who do floss regularly, simply don't understand what steps are needed to clean away the dental plaque that's most likely to cause gum disease. (The plaque that accumulates in the areas outlined by the circles in our diagrams.)

What's needed is to use the floss to scrub and clean that in-between-the-teeth portion of each tooth that lies at and below the gum line. Here are instructions how.

Regular flossing can help to keep you in good health.

Researchers have identified a statistical relationship between having gum disease (periodontal disease) and experiencing heart disease, stroke, or delivering prematurely. However, these studies have not positively identified why.

One theory blames the persistent state of inflammation that's present with gum disease. It suggests that chemical mediators associated with gum inflammation are distributed throughout the person's body via their blood stream. These chemicals, in turn, have a contributory impact on inflammatory diseases taking place in other parts of their body.

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