Even when people brush their teeth regularly, they can still get tooth decay if they neglect to floss, because those hard-to-reach places can harbor bacteria that secrete acids that eat away at tooth enamel.
LiveScience asks the experts to answer questions about your health. This week, we asked dentists and experts on dental hygiene: why should people floss? Their answers have been edited.
Caren Barnes, a professor of dental hygiene at the University of Nebraska Medical Center:
When we eat carbohydrates, the microorganisms in dental plaque convert the carbohydrates to an acid that attacks the enamel of the teeth. The acid decalcifies the enamel, and thus a dental carious lesion, or cavity, begins to form.
The microorganisms in dental plaque cause inflammation of the soft tissues, specifically the gingiva (gums). If not stopped, this inflammation causes gingivitis, which can be reversed with good oral hygiene. If it is not reversed, gingivitis can destroy the deeper supporting soft tissue structures and eventually the bone that holds the tooth in the socket.
When that occurs, periodontal disease has been established. It can be stopped with scrupulous oral hygiene, but sometimes surgical intervention is necessary. However, the bone will not grow back.
The purpose of using dental floss is to remove dental plaque and biofilm from the surfaces of the teeth, especially the surface between two teeth. Because the spaces between teeth are usually so small, toothbrush bristles cannot reach in between the two tooth surfaces.
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