If so many people have such a particular procrastination in common, I figure there’s gotta be something stacked against us. So I talked to experts in the dental and mental health fields about what exactly makes flossing so hard, and how to potentially improve our relationship, ahem, no-strings-attached.
How *should* we be flossing?
First, let’s break down what good flossing looks like. The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends two minutes of teeth brushing twice daily and one daily flossing session with regular floss or an ADA-approved water flosser. Good flossing technique includes cleaning between the teeth and the sides of your teeth—without excessive bleeding.
This means that you should be gentle with your flossing, making sure to go slowly, rather than digging the floss into your gums as you clean between your teeth. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, though, and bleeding is a common symptom when your gums are inflamed. Practicing good dental hygiene daily will lower the rate of gum inflammation over time. We just, you know, actually gotta do it.
So, why don’t we all just floss regularly?
Despite our best intentions when we come home with that sparkly new package of floss after our twice-yearly teeth cleaning, many of us quickly fall out of practice. There are a few common reasons why this happens.
1. It’s a hard habit to form
“Many things in life are about developing consistent habits. If flossing isn’t part of one’s daily routine, it will often simply be overlooked or forgotten in the large list of daily activities that we all perform,” says Harvard-trained orthodontist Scott Cardall, DMD, founder of Orem Orthodontics. “Habit forming is key.”
Dr. Cardall says that being taught how to floss also includes demonstrating good habits. This means that when children learn to do it, part of that instruction must repeatedly require the child to practice this skill—and they need to see the adults in their lives flossing regularly, too.
There are several behavioral tricks you could try to make the habit stick: rewarding yourself when you floss, keeping a visual counter (like adding beads to a jar) of how many times you’ve flossed, or getting a trusted friend or loved one to hold you accountable.
The good news? Flossing itself is positively reinforcing, according to Dr. Cardall, because the more you do it, the less painful and uncomfortable it gets over time.
2. It requires a lot of manual dexterity
“Manual dexterity can be a serious problem in kids, older adults, and often even middle-aged adults,” says Dr. Cardall. The ADA defines manual dexterity as the ability to use your hands in a skillful, coordinated way to grasp and manipulate objects and demonstrate small, precise movements. This is flossing to a T.
Children with smaller hands and less robust control of their hand muscles can admittedly find flossing frustrating, which can lead them (and their parents) to give up.
Even with adult-level fine-motor skills, it’s not a super easy task to throw into your routine when you’re sleepy. “To use string floss most effectively, it must be wrapped around a finger on either hand and manipulated in the mouth in many different positions,” says Dr. Cardall. And if you’ve got an injury in your arms or shoulders, or arthritis, it can become near-impossible. Dr. Cardall says that many water flossers are a great alternative for people who can’t handle the analog way of cleaning between their teeth.
“Also, the manual dexterity and time commitment are much more intense with braces,” he adds. A water flosser or hand flosser made for braces is a smart investment to reduce the annoyance of the task.
3. It’s not the most pleasant wake-up or wind-down
Staring into a mirror in a room with bright fluorescent lights isn’t always the most lovely experience. If you hate flossing before bed or when you wake up—two times of day when we can lack the stamina to do something we don’t want to do—try a different time of day. There’s no rule you need to practice oral hygiene at the same time as everyone else. Maybe it looks like brushing and flossing at lunch in your kitchen or work bathroom.
4. We lack any urgent motivation
One common denominator you’re likely to find in those struggling with flossing is the issue of motivation, says Lara Barbir, PsyD, a Southern California–based clinical psychologist.
We’re not always aware of why flossing is important or have a full understanding of the risks we face later on if we don’t floss: your dental care later on in life could be costly, you could develop gum disease that harms your teeth or your ability to eat hard foods, you could increase your dementia risk. These consequences are vague, undefined, potentially way down the line, (and different for everyone), making it harder to grasp urgency or motivation via fear of the consequences, according to Dr. Barbir. But they’re still there, and more education could help us better understand why flossing is important.
The thing is, it’s hard to list some scary and verifiable risks without seeming like a huge, well, party-pooper. And dentists already know that they’re not people’s favorite locale.
5. There’s a lot of shame surrounding hygiene
The truth is, the cards are not stacked in our favor when it comes to flossing. It’s best to form the habit when we’re young, which is the hardest time to grip something tiny and perform precise movements where we can’t see what we’re doing. And then, when we’re older, it’s often looked down upon if you don’t floss, which can lead to a cycle of avoidance.
If shame is holding you back from exploring new and creative ways to floss, you’re not alone. But author and therapist KC Davis, of How To Keep House While Drowning, known for her advice on how to adapt care tasks to your life and needs, reminds us that there are no moral strings attached to taking care of yourself. You’re not a bad person if you don’t floss, and you’re not a good person if you do. These are just things that need to happen so that you can have a healthy mouth, and prevent pain and costly procedures down the road—and you deserve that.