Flossing | Vol. 3 / No. 40.3

Photo: keatssycamore, CC BY-SA 2.0

Given that I’m literally heading to the dentist later today for a rather overdue appointment (it’s been over a year… shut up I know) I find it somewhere between curious and ironic that the news this week appears to suggest that flossing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Turns out when the Associated Press asked, the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture didn’t have anything, and the next year the flossing recommendation was gone from the Dietary Guidelines they issue every five years: “In a letter to the AP, the government acknowledged the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched, as required.

Well crap, it’s always worked for me.

Now, I’ll be the first person to tell you that anecdotes are not evidence, so my personal experience of having sore gums when I don’t floss and not-sore gums when I do isn’t admissible, but I’ve stopped flossing enough times (because I’m lazy, that’s why) that I think I’ll continue because it seems to prevent sore gums in my n=1 (but very repeated) case study.

On the other hand, I suppose it could be the placebo effect.

You laugh, but this is precisely what people who — for instance — like to get acupuncture for their chronic, low-level pain do. They’re pretty sure they feel better afterward, even though there’s little-to-no reliable scientific data to show that there’s even a reason it should work, let alone evidence that it works better than a placebo (there have been many studies, and many debates on the issue, but I respect Dr. Stephen Novella’s extensive experience and skeptical eye on this one).

And I don’t think it’s a good idea for doctors to prescribe placebos, either — even if they work. It’s just too much of a risk in most cases, possibly damaging the trust the patient has in medicine, possibly damaging the actual patient (depending on the placebo delivery mechanism, for example “herbal remedies” with dicey ingredients).

On the other hand, if you want to go do something, even knowing it could just be a powerful placebo, and you don’t mind paying for it yourself, then that’s your right. Hell, I spend my money drinking at bars, and I know there’s no reliable evidence that’s good for me (probably the opposite!) — but I enjoy it, and enjoying it lowers my stress levels.

So even if the evidence behind flossing isn’t any good — and if it isn’t, they should really stop recommending it — I won’t tell you not to do it. Just do it knowing the science doesn’t demonstrate there’s much in the way of evidence it works.

At least floss is cheap. Now where’s that mouthwash?


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.