Brushing two times daily for at least two minutes each time is the first step in keeping your teeth and gums healthy. But even the best toothbrush can’t fully cleanse the spaces between your teeth. That’s why the American Dental Association recommends you floss once a day to remove food particles and plaque – the sticky film on your teeth that can lead to cavities and gum disease.

Plaque contains cavity-causing bacteria that feed on leftover food in your mouth. These bacteria love sugary substances — and as they feast on them, they produce acids that can harm the shiny, protective surface of your teeth, setting the stage for tooth decay.

Plaque that isn’t cleansed away by brushing or flossing can harden into a rough substance called tartar or calculus. Tartar builds up along your gum line, which can lead to gum disease. Once tartar forms, only your dentist can remove it, but flossing every day can prevent plaque buildup.

What should I use to clean between my teeth?

Have you ever used something other than dental floss to remove food stuck between your teeth? If you answered yes, you’re in good company, according to a study by Ipsos conducted on behalf of Waterpik in consultation with the ADA. Researchers found that people admitted to using fingernails, folded paper or cardboard, forks or other utensils, safety pins and even strands of hair to clear the spaces between teeth.

Unfortunately, these aren’t the best tools for cleaning between teeth. In fact, they can even be harmful. More than 40% of people surveyed said they felt pain when using these objects to reach between teeth.

Fortunately, there are many safe, effective tools made for the job. You can choose from traditional dental floss — a smooth strand of nylon or teflon made to slide easily between teeth — as well as dental picks, tiny brushes or water flossers.

Which flossing tool is right for you? Talk with your dentist and try different options to see which one you like best. Many people find that classic string floss works well. Dental picks and tiny brushes can be good for reaching out-of-the-way spots. There are pre-threaded flossers that come fitted with picks or brushes at one end, giving you a couple of different ways to get between teeth.

A water flosser, which uses a gentle stream of water to rinse away food and plaque, can be useful if you find other tools hard to work with. People with braces, bridges and other dental work may find that a water flosser helps them reach every nook and cranny.

Flossing products with the ADA Seal of Acceptance have been proven safe and effective. Find the right one for you.

Should I floss before or after brushing my teeth?

As long as you floss thoroughly, it doesn’t matter when you do it. The most important thing is to make flossing a daily habit. Choose a time of day when you can give your teeth a little extra attention. If you’re too tired at night, try flossing in the morning or after lunch.

Keep in mind that cleaning between your teeth shouldn’t cause pain. If you floss too hard, you might damage the tissue between your teeth. At the same time, being too gentle might leave food or plaque behind. You may feel some discomfort when you floss, but with practice, you’ll figure out how much pressure is just right. If cleaning between your teeth still hurts, talk with your dentist.

Do kids need to floss?

Flossing should become part of your child’s dental care routine as soon as they have two teeth that touch. At first, adults will have to handle this step. Kids usually take over around age 10 or 11, when their hands are ready to hold floss or other cleaning tools. This article offers more helpful tips for teaching children how to brush and floss.

5 steps for flawless flossing

Ever wondered if you’re using dental floss the right way? Here’s how to floss like a boss.

  1. Break off about 18 inches of floss, wrapping most of it around one of your middle fingers. Wind the remaining floss around the same finger of the opposite hand. This finger will take up the floss as you move along.
    An illustration depicting step 1 of flossing teeth.
  2. Hold the floss tightly between your thumbs and forefingers.
    An illustration depicting step 2 of flossing teeth.
  3. Guide the floss between your teeth using a gentle, rubbing motion. Never snap the floss into the gums.
    An illustration depicting step 3 of flossing teeth.
  4. When the floss reaches the gum line, curve it into a C shape against one tooth. Gently slide it into the space between the gum and the tooth.
    An illustration depicting step 4 of flossing teeth.
  5. Hold the floss tightly against the tooth, slightly away from the gums. Gently rub the side of the tooth with an up-and-down motion, following the shape of the tooth. Repeat this method on the rest of your teeth, top and bottom. Don’t forget the back side of your last teeth (at the very back of your mouth.)
    An illustration depicting step 5 of flossing teeth.