the Australian Dental Association
Written by the Australian Dental Association, Jun 24, 2022
Fact Checked

Cleaning in between the teeth is known as 'interdental cleaning'. This should be a key part of daily oral health routines for both children and adults. It is just as important as tooth brushing. Cleaning between the teeth is often referred to as 'flossing'. This is because flossing has always been the most common method. However, there are now multiple ways to and items to use to clean in between your teeth. 

80% of Australian adults report brushing their teeth two or more times per day. However, only 25% of adults report that they floss or clean between their teeth every day. This means that 3 out of 4 adults do not clean between their teeth every day. 

Cleaning between the teeth removes the food and bacteria that collect in these small spaces. It can be done using string floss, flossettes, interdental brushes or a water flosser. Not cleaning between the teeth can lead to gum disease, and it may also contribute to tooth decay developing.

What is dental plaque?

Plaque is a sticky layer of bacteria that forms on the surface of the teeth. It develops both above and below the gums. It can make the teeth ‘feel fuzzy’ when they have not been brushed. When plaque builds up on the teeth, it can lead to gum disease.

When should you clean between your teeth?

No matter how well your brush your teeth, the bristles will not be able to access the small spaces between your teeth. That is why other items must be used to clean these spaces. 

The Australian Dental Association recommends cleaning between your teeth at least once per day. People with gum disease may need to clean between their teeth more often.

Cleaning between your teeth before brushing can help to break up the plaque and left over food pieces from between your teeth. Brushing then helps to clear these away from the tooth surfaces. But, in the end, the most important thing is that you clean between your teeth every day. If you choose to do it after brushing, this will work also. 

Why does cleaning between my teeth cause my gums to bleed?

Cleaning between your teeth may cause your gums to bleed, especially if you do not do it regularly. Not cleaning the bacteria away from between the teeth can cause the gums to become inflamed. Inflammed gums can look puffy and larger than usual. They may also bleed when stimulated, for example by brushing or flossing. This bleeding does not mean you should stop cleaning between your teeth. It acutally may mean you need to do it more often. As you clean between your teeth more often, the bleeding should stop. If your gums continue to bleed, even with good daily brushing and flossing, it is best to see your dentist to make sure there are no other causes for the bleeding.

Remember, healthy gums do not bleed.

How to floss your teeth

It is important to floss correctly so that the food and bacteria from between your teeth is cleared away. Your dentist can provide a hands-on demonstration on how to floss correctly but here are some basic tips you can follow:

  1. Take approximately 30 - 45 cm of floss and wind it around your middle finger on each hand. Use your thumbs and index fingers to control the floss when cleaning between your teeth.
  2. Gently push the floss between the teeth.
  3. Use a gentle up-and-down motion to rub the floss along the side of each tooth. The floss will be able to go slightly under the gum to remove the plaque from this area also.
  4. Remove the floss and then move on to the next spot using a new section of floss or rinsing the string on a flossette under running water.

Flossettes

Floss picks or flossettes are available instead of string floss. They have a handle with a curve at one end that holds a piece of dental floss. These can be helpful for:

  • parents when flossing children's teeth,
  • children learning to floss their own teeth,
  • adults who have trouble reaching into their own mouth, or 
  • people with decreased fine motor skills. 
 
  • Up-close,-woman-using-flossette-(2).jpg

An example of one type of flossette being used to clean between the teeth. Getty Images.

At what age should children begin flossing?

Parents should begin flossing their children's teeth once they have at least two teeth touching side-by-side. This is often around age 2. Flossettes can be useful to reach into your child's mouth when flossing their teeth. It is helpful to have your child lying on or across your lap or on a bed as this can help you to see and reach into their mouth. You can even try standing behind your child with their head tilted slightly back. 

As children get older and their fine motor skills improve, they can begin flossing their own teeth. A good guide for the age this can start is when your child gets their 'pen license' at school. 

Interdental brushes

Interdental brushes are a practical, easy-to-use alternative to flossing. Their look similar to a tiny bottle brush. These brushes include a short handle that is attached to a thin, flexible wire that is covered in soft bristles. They work by helping to clear away the food, plaque and bacteria in between the teeth. The brushes come in a range of sizes and each brush can be used multiple times before being thrown in the bin. 

Interdental brushes can be used instead of floss or together with floss or other items to clean between the teeth. For some people, interdental brushes may be more effective than regular string floss for cleaning between the teeth. They can be helpful for people with braces, fine motor issues, or large spaces between the teeth where floss cannot fill the gap properly. Interdental brushes can be a good option for people who just don't like using floss. 

If you have braces and find using dental floss tricky, interdental brushes can be a great option to clean between the teeth as well as the brackets and wire. They are perfect to use anytime as they are quick and easy to use.

An interdental brush being used to clean between the teeth. Getty Images.
 

How to choose the correct size interdental brush

Interdental brushes come in a range of sizes. The bristles should fit firmly but comfortably between the teeth. Only a light pressure should be needed to push the brush between the teeth. The brush should not be forced. It is important to choose the correct size so the interdental brush can provide you with the most benefit.

The spaces between your teeth can vary in size. Thererfore you may need to use a different brush size for different areas of the mouth.

If you are unsure about which size interdental brush you should use, your dentist can provide you with this advice as well as show you how to use these in your mouth.
 

Interdental brushing technique

Your dentist can provide hands on advice on how to use an interdental brush correctly but here are some basic tips you can follow:

  1. Remove the plastic cap from the brush.
  2. Hold the interdental brush between your thumb and index finger.
  3. Gently insert the brush into the triangular-shaped space between the teeth with a gentle twist or wriggling action.
  4. Push the brush through the space and then pull it back out. Do this a few times for each space. 
  5. Rinse the brush bristles with water after cleaning each space. 
  6. To reach in between the back teeth, you may wish to gently bend the wire to get better access. 
  7. Once finished, rinse the bristles and place the plastic cap back on. 
 
Caring for your interdental brush

Most interdental brushes can be used multiple times before they need to be thrown away. After each use, the bristles should be rinsed well with water and the cap should be placed back on before the brush is put away. When the bristles begin to look worn or the wire is bent or twisted, it is time to replace your interdental brush with a new one.

Avoid toothpicks

Toothpicks are not recommended to clean between teeth. Regular and rough use of toothpicks may cause gum damage. The toothpick can also break, splinter and get stuck in the gums. They can even wear away the teeth with long-term use. There are many better options to clean in between the teeth.

Summary

Cleaning between your teeth is a very important part of your daily oral hygiene routine. It should be done at least once every day. There are many options to use for cleaning between your teeth, including floss, flossettes, interdental brushes and water flossers. Your dentist can provide advice on the best product to help keep your teeth and gums healthy and the correct technique to use. Once you start and continue to clean between your teeth regularly, you will notice how great your mouth feels!