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Flossing: A Historical Overview

Floss is an invaluable tool that we often take for granted.  Floss is so prevalent in North America that we purchase over 3 million miles of it every year (an average of 18 yards per person).  This invention is a crucial part of routine dental hygiene, but where did it come from?


The concept of dental floss was first put forward in 1815 by Levi Spear Parmly.  Parmly came from a family of well-known dentists in New Orleans. He recommended that patients floss with silk floss. 

The first patent for a dental floss dispensing device was filed by Asahel M. Shurtleff in 1874 For removing foreign matters lodged between the teeth, dentists recommend the use of thread in place of tooth-picks, [fl]oss-silk being considered the best material for the purpose  for the dental company Codman & Shurtleff.  The product was not, however, actively marketed until 1882.

In 1898 Johnson & Johnson introduced dental floss on a broader scale by securing a patent for silk floss made from leftover sutures.  However, adoption of silk floss was fairly low before WWII, and during the war domestic supplies of silk became scarce.

Around the same time Dr. Charles C. Bass (the Father of Preventative Dentistry) invented nylon floss.  Nylon, in addition to being more abundant, was also more abrasive and flexible than silk and thus better suited in the production of floss.


Since the invention of modern day nylon and biodegradable flosses, there have been many studies trying to capture the rate of flossing in the patient population.  According to a 2004 study conducted by NYSDJ, over middle-aged patients are significantly more likely to floss than their younger and older counterparts.  Additionally, only 13.4% of respondents were frequent every day flossers, whereas 57% reported not flossing at all.

Benefits & Techniques:

Flossing is a vital part of dental home care.  The interproximal surfaces of teeth (the space between) cannot be reached by brushing alone.  The regularly flossing with the proper technique can significantly lower gingival inflammation scores as well as help mitigate increases in periodontal pocket depth.  Regular flossing removes plaque, polishes surfaces, and helps to reduce bad breath.

For those with bridge work, fixed retainers, and orthodontic appliances try floss “threaders” – a flexible soft plastic pick that works just like a needle and thread.  For tight spaces between teeth try using waxed floss as it will slide through better.  Water-picks cannot replace brushing and flossing, because a water-pick cannot remove plaque with the efficiency of brushing or flossing.

Follow these steps to improve your flossing technique:

  1. Cut about 18” of floss off the roll
  2. Take the ends in your hands
  3. Wrap the ends of the floss around two fingers from both hands
  4. Slide the floss gently into the space between your teeth
  5. Once the floss reaches the gum-line pull the ends away from you until the floss forms a c shape.
  6. Then pull one end of the floss through and away from the tooth
  7. Repeat with all interproximal spaces
  8. Rinse

Of course in addition to brushing and flossing, regularly scheduled dental cleanings are crucial to maintaining optimum oral health.  Give us a call to schedule your cleaning today!

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