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Flossing and the Failures of Journalism

News headline that is wrong.

After news reports last month, many people in Mt. Pleasant have wanted to know what their dentist has to say about flossing.

The problem with journalism is that some reporters don’t act with due diligence. In an era where clickbait-headlines and Twitter feeds trump fact-checking, the media often seems not to care about getting things right and fails to consider what problems might be caused by such action.

This happens even with the bigwigs. Early last month, nearly every news outlet — from the Associated Press, CBS, NPR, and the New York Times — was shouting from the rooftops about a story they failed to investigate thoroughly. What was that story?

The government says you don’t need to floss.  

Except That’s Not What They Meant

The federal government regularly publishes dietary guidelines through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and flossing has been a part of those guidelines for decades.

The law actually requires a certain scientific standard of proof for anything published within these guidelines, and it was recently noted that despite having the support of every health organization or practitioner basically everywhere, the published studies in this particular area were weak.

The weakness of the data is primarily a result of lackluster methodology and because there wasn’t a need for it. Essentially, it’s obvious you should floss, but there hasn’t been a need to prove it until now. The countless studies that had been done were conducted over short periods of time or with low numbers of participants.

Lacking the scientific rigor the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services strived for, their dietary guidelines dropped the mention of flossing this time around, which was never an emphasis for their nutrition guidelines to begin with.

Sensationalist newspapers like the AP looked to make something out of nothing, suggesting that the U.S. health officials have changed their stance on flossing — which simply isn’t true. They didn’t print their recommendations for brushing teeth either, and yet no one is reporting on that story.

What Health Officials Really Think

woman with something in her teeth

Nope, not going to floss. The newspaper said I didn’t have to.

In a statement to the ADA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said:

“Flossing is an important oral hygiene practice. Tooth decay and gum disease can develop when plaque is allowed to build up on teeth and along the gum line. Professional cleaning, tooth brushing, and cleaning between teeth (flossing and the use of other tools such as interdental brushes) have been shown to disrupt and remove plaque.”

In this release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, the Advisory Committee made the deliberate decision to focus on food and sugar intake, rather than on oral hygiene.

It was not, in any way, meant to be interpreted as a change to the views on flossing.

Do you think the staff at the Associated Press stopped flossing?

I have to wonder if any reporters went on national television to cover this story without flossing, first. Even as more than 150 news outlets spread this misinformation to the masses, the AP reporter who initially broke the story admits that he still flosses.

Interdental cleaning is an important part of taking care of your teeth and gums. Cleaning between your teeth removes plaque that can lead to cavities or gum disease. If you have any doubt about this, simply floss your teeth and see what comes out.

Your toothbrush didn’t reach it, so that mysterious food particle you were saving for later was bound to begin rotting, creating bacteria and plaque in your mouth. Your toothbrush can only reach 60% of the surface of your teeth; do you really want to leave the rest of those teeth indefinitely dirty?

While we may not have the depth of scientific study in flossing that we do in other areas, any dental professional in the country will verify that it’s an important practice. The potential benefits radically surpass any potential downsides.

~ Dr. Randy