I’ve always had good teeth. So much so that when I was about 16, my dentist told me that I’d never have to worry about flossing. Well, those words were like a license to kill! Since then, I’ve rarely flossed. Oh yeah, in my recent years there were the fleeting attempts of developing a new habit after visiting the hygienist who would scold me about not flossing, even while admitting that I had great teeth. Of course, I’d brush twice a day, but flossing for me never caught on. I’d hear my old dentist say “you’ll never need to floss” and I’d lull myself back into complacency. Over the years, what I’ve come to learn is that flossing is not about your teeth, but rather it’s about your gums. No matter how good your teeth are, if your gums are unhealthy say good-by to those great teeth.
Here’s why. There are over 600 types of bacteria in your mouth. If left alone, they form a film on your teeth called plaque. The bacteria produce acids and other toxins that eat away the enamel on your teeth causing cavities and irritate the gums causing gingivitis. Over time, the bacteria that is irritating your gums migrates further and degrades the bone that hold your teeth in place (periodontis). Even worse, the same bacteria has also been linked to heart disease, heart attack and stroke. So not only can you lose your teeth by poor oral hygiene, but you can also lose your life!
Earlier this month I once again found myself in the hygenist’s chair for my 6 month cleaning having the same conversation about flossing and why I don’t. I got to thinking about short cuts around the flossing issue while still preserving my gums, teeth and life. Eureka! The solution was mouthwash! After all, if all I need to do was kill the bacteria, there’s nothing better than some Listerine to flow into all those hard to reach places even places that floss can’t get! I was saved!
Well not so fast. Here’s what my hygienist explained to me. It’s not only about killing the bacteria. It’s more about removing the rough surfaces that the bacteria like to hide in. You see, the bacteria create the film that creates the plaque that the bacteria like to hide in. It’s kind of like a coral reef, where the organisms create some calcium that starts the reef that attracts more organisms that lays down more calcium and so the coral reef grows. That’s kind of like what plaque is: a coral reef growing on your teeth and gums. Mouthwash might wipe out some of the fish and plants growing on the coral, but it doesn’t remove the coral. So by morning you have a fresh colony of plants and new schools of fish swimming across the plaque reef in your mouth. When it comes to your mouth, you’ve got to knock down the coral so there are fewer places for the bacteria to hide and grow – then you can kill them with mouthwash! That’s what brushing and flossing does.
Brushing gets the plaque that has built up on the surface of your teeth. But these bacteria are tiny and live in between your teeth and also below your gum line. That’s where the floss come in. It really doesn’t take a whole lot of effort either. In fact too much effort with a toothbrush or floss can be as bad as too little. The goal with flossing is to simply break the bond between your teeth and gums that was created by the plaque. This brings in oxygen and allows the mouthwash to penetrate and kill the bacteria. With a little practice, this can be done very quickly.
So from that conversation at the dentist’s office, I decided to try a little experiment. I’ve changed my daily oral hygiene process to incorporate not only my usual brushing, but also some new brushing techniques, some mouth wash and yes, some floss. Here’s my method.
1. Floss between all teeth starting below the gum line and up toward the top of the teeth.
2. Dry brush the surface of my teeth with firm but gentle pressure using a soft bristle toothbrush. This removes the plaque on the surface of the teeth. I check for its effectiveness by running my finger over my teeth and listen for a squeak. If the squeak is weak, I’ll brush that area a little longer.
3. A gentle application of toothpaste (only about the size of a small pea) on the toothbrush. The goal here is not vigorous brushing, but rather applying the toothpaste onto the tooth as kind of a polish to protect the surface of the teeth.
4. Apply a little bit of mouthwash to the toothbrush and gently brush along the gum line. I’ll also include the surface of my tongue because most of the bacteria that causes bad breath lives on the tongue.
5. Finally a quick rinse with the remaining mouthwash and I’m finished for the morning.
1. Brush with a pea sized amount of toothpaste as normal.
Actually, the morning routine doesn’t take as long as you might think. It lasts only about 2-3 minutes which is just the right amount of time for good oral hygiene, according to dentists. So far, I’ve noticed that my mouth feels fresher longer into the day, even when I eat breakfast after I’ve done the ritual. I think that’s a good sign. But the final test will be in six months when I go back to the dentist for my next cleaning and see if there has been noticeably less plaque buildup for the hygienist to scrape off and if she notices that my great teeth also have equally great gums! I’ll let you know in March.