OK, TMI: What Does It Mean If Your Floss Is Stinky?

Photo: Getty Images / Eva-Katalin

You're happily going through your bedtime routine: a hot shower, indulgent multi-step skincare ritual, teeth brushing—you know the drill. And because you understand the importance of flossing, you also pop out a string of floss to remove any food between your pearly whites. But then you realize, post-flossing, that your floss has a funky smell. So, what does this mean? 

Let's start here: the American Dental Association recommends (ADA) recommends flossing, also referred to as interdental cleaning, to help remove debris and plaque that gets trapped between teeth, reducing the risk of gum disease and tooth decay. Stinky floss might indicate that there are decaying food particles between your teeth—hence the need for regular flossing. However, in most cases, smelly floss might be a sign of bacteria "building below the gum line, where your floss and brushing cannot reach," says Rhonda Kalasho, DDS, doctor of cosmetic dental surgery and CEO of TruGLO Modern Dental, adding that this can also happen under a restoration like a crown or filling.

Dr. Kalasho says two common bacterial organisms could be culprits: porphyromonas gingivalis and treponema denticola. These two are typically found in active gum disease, she says. They have an unpleasant smell and release toxins and enzymes that elicit an inflammatory response. 

If left untreated, the growing bacteria can cause issues such as bad breath, infections, gum inflammation, bone loss, and tooth loss, Dr. Kalasho adds. So, if you do get a funky whiff after flossing, she recommends paying a visit to your dentist ASAP to get it checked out and prevent the harmful bacteria from causing any damage. 

Depending on how bad the bacteria is, Dr. Kalasho says your dentist will do a simple teeth cleaning or perform a deeper cleaning known as scaling and root planing. "Generally, patients with gum disease affecting the bone and tissue health require a deep cleaning so that all the bad bacteria below the gum line can be exfoliated, as well," she says. 

How to prevent bacteria from building up and making your floss stink

Visit your dentist regularly

There are some oral hygiene best practices to follow to prevent bacteria from accumulating and stinky floss from happening. The first is seeing your dentist regularly as recommended by the ADA for prevention and treatment. The definition of what "regular" visits mean varies depending on the person and their risk of developing the disease. So, it's best to check with your dentist specifically to learn what frequency will be best for you. As a general rule of thumb, Dr. Kalasho recommends visiting your dentist every three to four months to help maintain good gum health.

Maintain a good oral health routine

Sticking to a home oral care ritual is also key in helping prevent harmful bacteria from flourishing. The ADA recommends brushing twice a day using fluoride toothpaste for a total of two minutes (about 30 seconds per quadrant of the mouth or four seconds per tooth) and flossing once per day at a time that best fits your scheduleIdeally, though, Dr. Kalasho suggests brushing your teeth three times per day: in the morning, after lunch or midday, and before bed. She also recommends flossing twice a day after lunch and again at night.  

Use traditional and water floss

For the most optimal flossing routine, flossing with traditional floss and water floss is best. Start by flossing with traditional floss first. "The best way to use floss is to hug both sides of the teeth and resist doing a quick in and out motion," Dr. Kalasho says. "Instead, you want to make sure you take your time with it, and sometimes some teeth need two or three swipes with the floss to keep it clean. Make sure you keep flossing until you see nothing on it."

Once food is removed from in between your teeth, that's when you go in and brush your teeth as usual. "Flossing first allows for the good stuff in the toothpaste to reach all the spots of your teeth," Dr. Kalasho says.

And lastly, go in with your water floss to ensure any bacteria and food left below the gum line is exfoliated and removed. "Water flossing goes almost 3-4 mm deeper below the surface of the gums than flossing does," Dr. Kalasho says. "So patients with gum disease, or who are rehabilitating from gum disease, should absolutely use a water flosser to maintain their gum health and prevent any future recurrence of gum disease." Plus, the extra step helps keep your mouth and breath feeling fresh and clean. 


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