Scientific research at a loss to prove dental floss works

While flossing has been recommended for decades, the research into its efficacy is not conclusive

Floss, Flossing, AP, ADA

[Flickr/Alex Stikeleather]

Sales of dental floss most likely reach their peak around the time when new year’s resolutions are made, steadily declining for the rest of the year while users with good intentions leave the coils of minty thread to hibernate in drawers. But anyone who’s ever felt a moment of distress at the thought of gum disease, plaque build up, or cavities can take solace from a recent investigation into flossing and how it might not do very much at all.

According to the Associated Press, a team has been studying flossing since sometime last year when the agency asked the US departments of Health & Human Services and Agriculture to provide evidence supporting the hygiene act. When the requests went unanswered, written follow ups were also ignored, leading to the official filing of a freedom of information request – which also turned up nothing.

The AP’s inquiry centred around the recommendation of flossing that has been published in the list of Dietary Guidelines for Americans since 1980. When flossing was scraped from the list when it was republished in 2015, the AP started to ask questions.

“In a letter to the AP, the government acknowledged the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched, as required,” the article says.

Taking on the research themselves, AP reporters carried out a review of all the available scientific literature on flossing, focusing on 25 papers that compared the dental benefits of brushing alone with those associated with brushing and flossing.

When it came to flossing, the research suggested that the evidence to its benefits was “weak,” “unreliable,” and of poor quality, ultimately concluding that science has so far failed to provide any hard data to support the belief that flossing is beneficial.

Asking the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Peridontology to comment, the AP says both agencies replied citing other studies that supported flossing, adding that the research was of poor quality. Floss manufacturers were also incapable of providing supporting literature for the use of their products despite regularly funding research into dental hygiene, as well as designing and conducting it.

The AP was quick to add that while the evidence is scant, it cannot rule out that flossing is beneficial, but that nobody has yet proven it. A dentist representing the National Institutes of Health said that, by strict scientific guidelines, flossing no longer merits inclusion in the list of daily guidelines, but that consumers should still try to floss at the end of the day. “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.”

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