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Trouble Flossing? Help Is at Hand

Are you one of those people who don't floss because you find it awkward to maneuver the floss between your teeth? If so, a number of products can help you get the job done.

"There's no debate: You must floss," says Richard H. Price, D.M.D., a consumer spokesman for the American Dental Association. "You cannot just rely on brushing your teeth."

To prevent decay and gum disease, the two almost universal dental problems, you must remove plaque—the microscopic film of bacteria and other materials that builds up on all surfaces of teeth. "Dental floss gets between your teeth, where toothbrush bristles cannot reach, and literally wipes the sides of the teeth for plaque and gets rid of plaque underneath the gum line," says Dr. Price.

He likens toothbrushes and floss to vacuum cleaner attachments. "You need different vacuum attachments because there are some places you can't reach otherwise," he says. So, in addition to manual, electric, or ultrasonic toothbrushes, it's vital to floss to remove plaque.

If you have trouble flossing with your fingers, Dr. Price suggests you ask your dentist or hygienist for advice on how to do it best.

For better flossing

  • Different dental floss: You might find floss coated with wax or Teflon slides more easily between your teeth than uncoated floss.

  • Floss picks: Shaped like miniature slingshots, these disposable devices have handles that help get to hard-to-reach areas, such as back teeth. Their Y-shaped arms hold and spread the floss, allowing you to work it up and down around the edge of each tooth.

  • Power flossers: These, too, look like slingshots. They attach to power toothbrushes and vibrate floss back and forth between teeth.

Other alternatives

  • Interproximal brushes: Available in manual and power forms, these tiny brushes "certainly help clean between teeth and the gum area," Dr. Price says. If your teeth are too tight against each other, the brushes can't fit into the gaps.

  • Wooden plaque remover picks: These flat wooden picks stimulate the gums and can remove some plaque, but, Dr. Price says, they cannot reach between very tight teeth.

  • Power irrigators: At least one study found that using an irrigator, combined with manual or power brushing, is as effective as flossing to reduce bleeding, gum inflammation, and plaque removal. Dr. Price says the water streams can't reach everywhere floss can. But if your hands are arthritic, an irrigator might be a good alternative, adds Marge Lappan Green, C.D.A., R.D.H., spokesperson for the American Dental Hygienists Association.

  • Mouthwash: Two studies found that using an antibacterial mouth rinse twice a day was as effective as flossing against mild to moderate gum disease. The studies did not examine the effectiveness of mouthwash in reducing tooth decay or advanced gum disease.

Dr. Price notes that if your floss tends to fray and break, you probably have a rough filling. Consult your dentist.