the Australian Dental Association
Written by the Australian Dental Association, Nov 27, 2021
Fact Checked

Cleaning in between the teeth, known as 'interdental cleaning' should be a key part of your daily oral health routine. It is just as important as tooth brushing. Often we have referred to cleaning between the teeth as 'flossing' because that has always been the most common method. However, now there are multiple options 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. 

Cleaning between the teeth dislodges food and bacteria between the teeth. This can be done with string floss, flossettes which help hold the floss, interdental brushes and water flossettes. Not cleaning between the teeth can lead to gum disease, and it may also contribute to tooth decay developing.

DID YOU KNOW

Plaque is a sticky film that builds up on the surface of teeth. The bacteria in plaque can cause tooth decay and gum disease.

When should you clean between your teeth?

The Australian Dental Association recommends cleaning between your teeth at least once per day to go with your regular twice a day brushing routine. It is generally recommended to do so before you brush. This breaks up the plaque and food debris in between your teeth, then brushing helps to clear these away from the tooth surfaces. But, in the end, as long as you clean between your teeth every day, doing so after brushing will still be effective.

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

Cleaning between your teeth with floss or interdental brushes may cause your gums to bleed, especially if you do not clean between your teeth regularly. Not cleaning the bacteria away from the gums can cause the gums to become inflamed. If your gums are inflamed, bleeding can occur, but this does not mean you should stop cleaning between your teeth. Over time, as you clean between your teeth every day, the bleeding should stop. If your gums continue to bleed, even with good oral hygiene, 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 in order to effectively remove food and bacteria from between your teeth.  Your dentist can provide a physical 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 and 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.
  3. Remove the floss and then move on to the next spot using a new section of floss or rinsing the string on a floss pick/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 their children's teeth, for children learning to floss their own teeth or for adults who have trouble reaching into their own mouth or have decreased manual dexterity.

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 to improve access to their mouth. You can even try standing behind them.

Interdental brushes

Interdental brushes offer a practical, easy-to-use alternative to flossing. Their appearance is commonly compared to a tiny bottle brush. The short handle is attached to a thin, flexible wire that is covered in bristles. They come in a range of sizes and are able to be reused multiple times before being thrown away. 

Interdental brushes can be used instead of floss or in addition to it. They work by helping to disrupt food, plaque and bacteria in between the teeth in the areas the toothbrush cannot reach. The brush head is inserted in the trianglar-shaped space between the teeth, close to the gums. For some people, interdental brushes are more effective than regular string floss for cleaning between the teeth. 

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

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

Choosing an interdental brush

Interdental brushes come in a range of sizes. The bristles should fit comfortably and snugly between the teeth. Only light pressure should be required 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 size of spaces between the teeth can vary in size. You might need to use different brush sizes in different areas of your mouth.

If you are unsure about the best size interdental brush to suit your mouth, your dentist can provide you with this advice and show you how to use these in your mouth.
 

Interdental brushing technique

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

  1. Hold the interdental brush between your thumb and index finger.
  2. Gently insert the brush into the triangular-shaped space between the teeth with a gentle twist or wriggling action.
  3. Push the brush through the space and then pull it back out. Do so a few times for each space. 
  4. Rinse the brush bristles before moving on to clean between the next two teeth.
  5. To reach in between the back teeth, you may wish to gently bend the wire to improve access. 
 
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 and the cap should be replaced before storing the interdental brush. When the bristles or wire appears too worn, or it bends, it is time to replace your interdental brush with a new one.

Avoid toothpicks

Toothpicks are not recommended to clean between the teeth. Rough and frequent use 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 an extremely important part of your regular oral hygiene routine that 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 regularly, you will notice how great your mouth feels!