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Who Invented Dental Floss? Someone With Broccoli Stuck In Their Teeth...

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man flossing in mirror

Do you floss? Most people don’t. According to the American Dental Association, only 12% of people floss daily. So when everyone assures me they floss regularly, your gums are telling me a different story – and the data backs them up!

Dental floss is a key part of your oral hygiene routine as you’ve heard many times. It might feel tedious but it’s the only way to ensure you clean between your teeth and under your gumline; without flossing, you’re not cleaning 35% of your teeth’s surface.

Flossing isn’t as new as you might expect either; anthropologists have found evidence that prehistoric humans used various implements–including pointed sticks and horse hair–for interdental cleaning and dislodging things from between their teeth.

Most sources credit Levi Spear Parmly for the invention of modern dental floss. The New Orleans dentist published a book in 1819 titled A Practical Guide to the Management of the Teeth, in which he recommended people flossed with waxed silk thread to “dislodge that irritating matter which no brush can remove, and which is the real source of disease.” Despite this early advice, it wasn’t until 1874 that the first patent was granted for dental floss.

Asahel M. Shurtleff’s patent improved on the concept of using silk floss for dental care with his “Improved Pocket Thread Carrier and Cutter”. This patent resembled the modern floss packages we’re familiar with today; however, his company wouldn’t provide unwaxed floss for home use until 1882.

In 1896, Johnson & Johnson took out their first dental floss patent for a product that was made from the same silk material used by doctors for stitches. However, during WWII the US supply of silk was cut off by the Japanese, leading to the development of nylon dental floss. It’s consistent texture, superior resistance to shredding, and lower price helped make flossing a more common practice.

Since then, interdental care has continued to advance as alternatives are invented, including the interdental brush in the 1980s and tools like water flossers. Today, dental floss can be found in a wide variety of materials, including Gore-Tex, spongier and softer varieties, and even floss with stiffened ends to help with flossing around braces.

If you’re part of the 88% of my patients who fib when they’re asked about their flossing habits, commit to making it part of your routine. When combined with proper brushing and rinsing, it will reduce gum disease and other oral health concerns (including the bleeding you might notice during dental checkups and while flossing at home). And believe me, your dentist and hygienist can tell if you’re not actually flossing!

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