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If You’re Going to Quit Flossing, Why Not Quit All This Other Crap Too?

Getting an annual checkup, taking vitamins, your daily shower...
Image: Shuttershock

People must really, really hate flossing, because when the Associated Press reported on Tuesday that it looks like this long-standing practice might actually be unnecessary, pretty much everyone responded with glee.

The AP looked at 25 studies conducted in the past decade, which generally compared the use of a toothbrush with the combined use of toothbrush and floss, and found that evidence for flossing was mostly weak and unreliable, as well as potentially biased.


— ameliamagritte (@xoamelia) August 3, 2016

Dentists who've been nagging us to floss for decades immediately started weighing in, coming down on one side or another. The US government quietly removed its flossing recommendations from dietary guidelines this year, according to the AP report, while the Canadian Dental Association drew a line in the sand and declared it would stand by the practice. (Flossing dislodges plaque and bacteria that a toothbrush can't reach, the Canadian association insists.)

Personally, I've been flossing once a day for years, and I don't plan to stop based on this analysis. The thing is, there are plenty of hygiene and health-related activities most of us do everyday where the evidence backing them up is questionable at best.

If you want to stop flossing, you could probably also stop going to the doctor for an annual checkup. For years now, experts have been saying that the evidence this is even helpful for most people is based on shoddy research (like flossing, maybe?) and calling for this "ritualistic" practice to come to an end, as one editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015 put it.

In the US, annual physicals cost more than $10 billion per year, the editorial says, about the same as annual costs for taking care of every single American lung cancer patient. At least flossing isn't costing consumers and insurers billions of dollars.

And what about probiotics? A lot of people consume them every day, whether in the form of yogurt or pills, thinking it will make them healthier. While it's possible that the field will evolve enough that these will be a viable treatment in the future, today there's just no good evidence they make a difference, as my colleague Kaleigh Rogers has written. Flossing, at least, is calorie and sugar-free.

While you're overhauling your routine, you could also give up taking vitamins, showering daily, and a million other little things that aren't necessarily backed up by solid science. Or you could take the AP's finding as a reminder that health research doesn't typically provide black-and-white results, or recommendations that apply to each one of us. The idea of a "universal patient" is a myth: Everybody's different.

Maybe someone at risk of gum disease, like a diabetic or smoker, would benefit more from flossing than the average person. Wayne Aldredge of the American Academy of Periodontology suggested to the AP that the impact of flossing might be clearer if researchers focused on specific groups. It's the same way that pregnant women are encouraged to take certain vitamins, even if they aren't necessary for most of us.

Flossing makes my teeth feel cleaner, and I won't be quitting. Anyway, the AP story doesn't read to me as a reason to abandon flossing altogether—just a call for more research into dental hygiene, which impacts our overall health. Unfortunately, though, that doesn't make for a very fun headline.