Learn to floss
September 12, 2012 7:15 AM   Subscribe

How do I *start* flossing? It's really painful... and apparently "not flossing" is my way of rebelling against society.

I would like to start flossing, but every time I try, it's really painful. First the floss gets stuck between the tops of two teeth, then when I push down hard enough to get it through, it feels like it slices the gum open. Every time. How do I get past this? Is there a better way to apply less pressure? If not, how long would it take to just get used to it?

I also seem to have some issues of rebellion tied up in flossing (and brushing too, for that matter). A lot of the reason I don't want to do it, besides the pain, is that "people say it's good for you" - and I don't want to just blindly do what people say. A big part of my identity is thinking and acting independently. I've never had a problem with my breath smelling, so there's little social incentive there. But it literally feels like I'm going against my identity when I do try to floss.

But apparently if I want to have teeth when I'm older (I'm 28 now), I should get over the pain and identity/rebellion issues, and start. So, how?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (61 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Try the disposable floss picks. They are the gateway drug for floss-haters, and you can tell yourself that you're not flossing the way that "people" want.
posted by holgate at 7:20 AM on September 12, 2012 [9 favorites]

How do I get past this?

Keep at it. Your gums are sensitive, partly from there being stuff in there, but partly because they're not used to that kind of stimulation. Floss every day for a week or three, and they'll get used to it.

A big part of my identity is thinking and acting independently.

There's a difference between "thinking and acting independently" and cutting off your nose to spite your face. Not wanting to do something because you've been told it's good for you isn't "independence," it's "bloody-mindedness." It'd be one thing if we were talking about something more objectively important, or at least something with any kind of moral valence. But we're talking oral hygiene.. It's not supposed to be pleasant. Suck it up.
posted by valkyryn at 7:21 AM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

If the pain/discomfort is keeping you away, maybe try a different kind of floss? I like the tape-style - it's not a string, but more like a thin flat ribbon. It might be easier to use for now. In any case, you and your gums will get used to the intrusion. A dentist could probably also suggest different types or approaches.

This guy says it's no substitute for flossing, but maybe incorporate a Water Pik into yer routine.
posted by jquinby at 7:21 AM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

then when I push down hard enough to get it through

Try pulling it back and forth in a sawing motion while gently pushing down to get through the gap.

A lot of the reason I don't want to do it, besides the pain, is that "people say it's good for you" - and I don't want to just blindly do what people say.

It's not something "people say is good for you", brushing and flossing are objectively things that will seriously reduce the amount dental work you need. Dental work is a hassle and pretty expensive, so look at it as saving yourself time and money (and pain!) in the long run.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:21 AM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Plaque, not plague. I hope.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:22 AM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

You hold your thumbs and/or fingers firmly against your mouth and chin and teeth in such a way that you can put downward pressure on the floss, but only within a certain range, so the floss stops before cutting the gums. Independence is admirable; toothless independence, not so much.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:23 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I struggled with this as an adult as well, and have gotten myself to a point where I've been flossing daily for more than a year, so I think this time it's finally stuck.

I suggest that you either try using floss that's specially designed for tight teeth, which it sounds like you have (Oral-B Glide in the GRAY box is good, says my husband), or use the little floss-picks that come in a big package. I use the latter, largely because trying to floss my back teeth makes me gag, and the picks are quicker to use and do give more control, which I think may help you.

(My dentist told me last time I was there that the picks aren't really as effective as actual floss and gave me this weird floss that I kid you not, felt like rope and broke between my back tooth, wherein a piece flew down my throat and made me choke but good. I gave it up after that, because my rationale is that either I use this floss and I struggle with it so much that I WON'T floss regularly, or I use the picks and I do, and I think the latter is most likely much better all around.)

Also, honestly, it'll stop hurting as much if you do it regularly. I bled quite a bit at first and my dentist did say that was normal and I'd toughen up. I did.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:23 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was seven I started rebelling against my parents by not brushing my teeth, and would go as far as wetting the toothbrush in case that was checked. I wish I could send you the copy of my school portrait from that year when the photographer made me smile. I looked like a Ferengi. As well as looking like shit I had to have 2 of my milk teeth removed under anasthetic because they developed abcesses. So who got to look uglier? Who got the toothache? It wasn't my parents and it wasn't society.

Not looking after your teeth is going to mean a few possible outcomes: (i) your teeth and gums decay faster (ii) you lose teeth or need dental work earlier and more often (iii) you have to spend more money on dental care (iv) your mouth/smile look worse.
posted by biffa at 7:23 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

A big part of growing up and developing a mature identity is to realize that rebellion like the mind you practice is futile and contributes to self-harm. I hate to say it, but if you literally feel like this essential health practice infringes upon your self identity, you may want to consider counseling.

Now, flosses aren't made equal. I prefer the non-fibrous kind because it's usually more waxy and solid and that gets stuck in my teeth less. I also like those little floss pick things, so here's another vote for those. Have you been to a dentist recently? You could ask your hygienist to show you how to floss properly.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:25 AM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here is what I have been doing, as a chronic non-flosser (with big hands and a small mouth and tight teeth and it's no fun!) who is trying to improve:

I got a 100-pack of those disposable floss pick thingies and plan to transition to one of those toothbrush-handle style ones when they run out.

I tell myself that I am not going to worry about doing the best job of flossing ever; I am just going to floss as best I can. There's one tooth that is too tight and too far back in my mouth to really floss, and right now I am not worrying about it. I am also not so good at that "roll the floss around and get it below the gumline" bit (what does that even mean?) but I figure that it will get easier.

I find that while it does hurt my gums to floss (because my teeth are tight, I can't really just "saw" the floss down - there has to be a lot of pressure to get it past the teeth at all), it does not hurt nearly as much as I thought. Flossing regularly has gotten me past the "I'm going to be driving this thin cord into the tender flesh of my gums!" reaction.

Also, although some of my teeth are still very tight, it seems like flossing has gotten easier with many of them.

And it has made my breath better - I did not think of myself as someone with terrible breath before, but it is better now. That is a plus!
posted by Frowner at 7:26 AM on September 12, 2012

Nthing the tape floss. My teeth are really close together or something and normal floss is horrible. Getting stuck, painful to use, breaking -- but I manage with the tape floss alright. I'd probably still be non-flosser if a surly dentist hadn't once pressed a tape floss sample upon me.

It also didn't floss for years because of the pain, and it hurts most at first. The pain diminishes the more consistently you floss. Also if you have bleeding at first, that also diminishes with continued flossing.
posted by ZeroDivides at 7:28 AM on September 12, 2012

The dentist will fix those tight spaces very quickly with a little piece of dental "sandpaper" so the floss won't "twang" into your gums.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:29 AM on September 12, 2012

Thinking and acting independently also means that you must be willing to deal with the consequences of those actions. Speaking as someone whose flossing habits could be better (read: could exist) and whose brother rarely brushed his teeth growing up, to the point where it was hard to ride in a car with him, your independence is almost certainly getting in the way of having people take you more seriously.

Which will be harder if you have fewer teeth, rotten teeth, or horrible breath.

So there's that.

How's your status at the dentist? Have you been recently? Have they done those gum checks where they go "2 - 3 - 2 - 4 - OH MY GOD 7 - 5 - 3 - 4 - 2" measuring the millimeters of gum they can poke? It's a little painful if you haven't been for a while, but that's what's going to help you figure out how good/bad your gums are and how they'll get better. I have to say that it makes me feel good when I started at 4s and 5s on a bunch of teeth and am now almost all 2s and 1s. So that's measurable motivation.

Get an electric toothbrush. Any will do, from the $7 Spin Brush to the $190 Sonicare. I have a $24 Braun of some sort that works well enough to make my hygienist smile. Some have replaceable heads that have "flossing action." That won't give you what you need, floss-wise, but it will help your gums get in better shape and swell less, which will help you feel better when you do floss.
posted by Madamina at 7:30 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I also seem to have some issues of rebellion tied up in flossing (and brushing too, for that matter). A lot of the reason I don't want to do it, besides the pain, is that "people say it's good for you" - and I don't want to just blindly do what people say. A big part of my identity is thinking and acting independently. I've never had a problem with my breath smelling, so there's little social incentive there. But it literally feels like I'm going against my identity when I do try to floss.

Also, I hear this. Honestly, it has been hard for me to learn physical self-care because unconsciously I associate it with being self-indulgent and bourgeois, and because I grew up in a family where I very rarely got to make choices for myself, so I have a lot of issues with stubbornness and willpower that I'm working through. I would suggest doing some real thinking about where your attitudes come from - after all, many people manage to be awesome rebellious radicals who also take care of their health (or even include self-care as part of their radical strategy - you're got to take care of yourself if you want to be effective, and many marginalized people are discouraged from self-care!). So yeah, look at your personal history and try to pinpoint where that "I am rebelling by not taking care of myself" thing comes from. I've found that facing up to the origins of my own reluctance to care for myself has helped me to see that it's silly and also to address the real issues at stake.
posted by Frowner at 7:31 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

First the floss gets stuck between the tops of two teeth, then when I push down hard enough to get it through, it feels like it slices the gum open. Every time. How do I get past this?

Spend money on good floss. Don't skimp. Buy Glide floss or satin floss which is much smoother when getting between your teeth.

A lot of the reason I don't want to do it, besides the pain, is that "people say it's good for you" - and I don't want to just blindly do what people say. A big part of my identity is thinking and acting independently. I've never had a problem with my

Do you want to have painful, expensive dental work done every year, or not? I mean, it's really that simple (at least it was for me). I simply couldn't afford to send money down the drain by not taking care of my teeth.

You're not "blindly" doing "what people say." You are evaluating the evidence, looking at alternatives, and picking the best path for yourself, which is to floss.
posted by deanc at 7:31 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't use regular floss. It's hard. I think one of the main barriers to get people to floss every day is the difficulty of using floss.

I floss every day, but I use a Reach flosser, and it is AWESOME. So waaaay much better than the little floss picks you get in bags of 50 at the drug store.

The way you get the right pressure with these is that you stick the flosser in your mouth, line up the floss with the space between your teeth, and lightly bite down. It presses the floss in through the tooth space in a gentle, controlled way. One of the spaces between my back teeth is manufactured (thanks to betwixt-the-teeth cavities and fillings, a typical symptom of not flossing regularly, which SUCK SO MUCH, which is why I've been flossing every single day religiously since I was 17) and only lets floss in at one particular angle. I can get in with a Reach flosser. I can't get in with regular floss or a dinky floss pick.

And in case you don't know (not trying to be condescending, a lot of folks don't), the thing with flossing isn't just to get floss in between the teeth and out again. You stick it between the teeth and then use the floss to scrape up and down on the sides of each tooth, as far down to the gumline as you can go without hurting yourself. That's what loosens up the actual tooth crud. Just a quick in and out doesn't do anything (except remove bits of corn on the cob--a vital service, but not dentally relevant).
posted by phunniemee at 7:31 AM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Gum infections can actually cause heart problems and kill you. That's a major reason vets are always pushing teeth cleaning for cats and dogs, and it can happen to humans, too: this Hollywood actor died of congestive heart failure that was initially caused by a dental infection. Flossing isn't some kind of racket perpetrated by the man.

The good news is, it's not going to hurt forever. Start off by being gentle. Use the sawing motion more than forcing it through your teeth, as suggested above. Begin by doing it a couple of times a week, then increase to every other day, then every day. Your gums are tougher than you think; it won't take long to get past the painful stage.
posted by something something at 7:36 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've found flossing much easier and happy-making since I switched to "Glide" floss.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:36 AM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

(good lord, that sounds very pepsi blue of me. but seriously, it's much easier to get between the tightly packed areas of my teeth, and it's not as sharp on my gums when they're feeling sensitive)
posted by rmd1023 at 7:37 AM on September 12, 2012

Came to recommend Glide floss as well. Also, don't be afraid to ask the dental hygienist for help and instruction.

Also a good sonic toothbrush will help a ton!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:39 AM on September 12, 2012

Start out every other day flossing. The first day hurts, but the day after hurts a lot more. Every other day hurts less, then once you're comfortable, go to every day. Nthing Glide floss.
posted by cecic at 7:44 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm an avid flosser but once I somehow went two months without (I have no idea what happened) and it hurt the first time I flossed again.

So the second time, I loaded up on painkillers first--took some tylenol about an hour before hand. It substantial dulled the pain/throbbing after. Soon I was back to regular flossage.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:46 AM on September 12, 2012

Another tool suggestion: I use the Butler FlossMate and POH brand thin nylon unwaxed floss.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:47 AM on September 12, 2012

I assume you have seen a dentist in the last year; if not, find a good one.

Try brushing with Sensodyne toothpaste, which reduces tooth sensitivity and might help with the gums as well.

Flossing should NOT hurt, although it's not the most comfortable thing in the world - kind of like having something stuck between your toes for a split second.

You can get a good Oral-B electric toothbrush for much less than what a sonic toothbrush goes for and it will serve you very well, or so my dental hygienist's currently high opinion of my dental care tells me. The model I have starts vibrating (!) after 2 minutes of brushing as a good reminder to keep the brush moving for an adequate amount of time.
posted by Currer Belfry at 7:51 AM on September 12, 2012

What worked for me:

1. Bear with it, it gets better.
2. Get a good professional cleaning at a dentist.
3. Using an electric toothbrush has helped.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:55 AM on September 12, 2012

I highly, HIGHLY recommend the Woven floss by Reach. It is very, very comfortable to use and won't slice your gums. It feels like a nice, minty thin "yarn" (for lack of better word). It has pink on the label. (the word "Woven" itself is actually a bit obscure).
posted by foxhat10 at 7:57 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

1) As mentioned above, get the floss sticks that have a flat silky ribbon.

2) When was your last deep cleaning at the dentist? I had neglected this for years, and once the tartar buildup was scraped away, I was AMAZED at how much space I actually had between my teeth! Flossing instantly became much easier*. Yes, the cleaning involves letting a dental assistant scrape at your teeth with a metal instrument, but it's really not painful, and it's totally necessary.

*Especially in the front lower teeth. That area is especially prone to buildup, and after my cleaning that gap felt as wide as the Grand Canyon. In a good way.
posted by The Deej at 7:58 AM on September 12, 2012

Flossing should NOT hurt,

Regular flossing shouldn't hurt. If you haven't flossed before, when you start, your gums will flare up from the irritation. After a couple of weeks of consistent flossing, this swelling feeling subsided.
posted by deanc at 7:59 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, those reach flossysticks mentioned above are fucking awesome. If you're a bloody flosser, floss before you brush instead of afterwards so you don't have to worry about drooling blood all night long.
posted by elizardbits at 8:04 AM on September 12, 2012

For the rebellion issue: I am forever indebted to my high-school health teacher for pointing out that not flossing/brushing is the microbacterial equivalent of eating out of the trash. When I don't want to, the image of multiplying bacteria is pretty good motivation.

Rather paradoxically, I've also found it easier to floss now that I regularly use these Stimudent toothpicks after lunch (I just keep them out on my desk). They aren't a floss substitute, but you could start with them if your mouth is really sensitive and bleeds easily. Once I got used to a clean mouth, flossing became as second nature as showering.
posted by susanvance at 8:06 AM on September 12, 2012

If your teeth are crowded, don't go through the top; get some "threader" floss. The end is stiff and you just thread it through at the level of your gumline. It also saves you from that slicing down feeling.

Also, get your dentist hygienist to give you flossing lessons.
posted by BibiRose at 8:07 AM on September 12, 2012

Here is how to make flossing stop hurting.

Go to the dentist. The dentist, at some point, should use their pick between each of your teeth up by the gumline while saying numbers between one and five to the hygenist, who will record them. If this does not happen, try a different dentist.

The numbers will be high, mostly fours and fives; if they weren't, flossing wouldn't hurt. Your dentist will suggest that periodontic scaling is neccesary. Say yes please. The scaling will probably happen at two subsequent appointments, during each of which half your mouth will be numbed. The dentist will scrape infected inflamed grossness out from under your gums on that side.

Two days after the scaling, begin flossing the side that was scaled. The gum on that side will seem pinker and firmer than it was before; it will be sensitive, but sensitive like freshly shaved skin, not like infected swollen flesh, and the pain you experience will have a different quality. The amount of blood will also be diminished. The pain and blood will further fade over the coming weeks; you will have a sense of progress that was absent from previous attempts.

You are now someone who flosses. If you try to go back, you will regret it, and you'll have to go through some of the same stuff when you return, so don't.
posted by longtime_lurker at 8:14 AM on September 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Agree with trying tape floss. Also, mouthwash can help gum pain if there is a component of gingivitis. It may sting at first and you might want to try a mouthwash with lower alcohol content at first (the percentage is on the bottle).

If you need some external motivation to keep up your teeth, you can watch the PBS Frontline special on lack of access to dental care in America for free via PBS.org or the PBS app. If you watch this documentary, you will discover that society-at-large really doesn't give a fuck about people with bad teeth and does practically nothing to help them with the pain, high cost, and very negative social and employment consequences of dental decay.
posted by artdesk at 8:16 AM on September 12, 2012

I started flossing regularly about a year ago, but apparently I was doing it wrong (just going up and down rather than getting in the sides between tooth and gum). I have sensitive, receding gums and when I started flossing correctly, it hurt really, really badly. Like throbbing pain that would last for 15 minutes or so afterward, my gums would bleed, all that. It probably took two weeks or so to stop being painful.

I stopped flossing regularly for a week or two a couple months ago and when I started again it was painful again for a few days (though not as bad). So... in my experience, yes, flossing can be painful, and as far as I know there is nothing dreadfully wrong with my gums so I assume you'll be fine too. I'd give it a couple weeks to stop hurting.
posted by queens86 at 8:18 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

So, flossing is still somewhat unpleasant for me, but much less than when I started. And I started several times, flossed every day for a week with skinny floss/those little forks, and then quit because I still had bleeding and plenty of pain and those dern dentists were lying to me about flossing without pain.

What helped me get through this was finally getting the brainwave that while flossing is virtuous, being in pain from flossing is not! And I sort of felt like I was sticking it to the man when I went for an over-the-counter oral anesthetic right after I flossed. ("Ow, ow, ow, okay, HA, jerks, you think I'm gonna sit here with a throbbing mouth, NO THANK YOU!) I used it for about 2-3 weeks, and the pain when I finished flossing did decrease, to the point where I have a couple reliable tricky spots, but everything else is fine. Possibly overkill, but it did get me through that rough patch. You could be an outlier in terms of adjustment time, but there is really no benefit to you from the suffering itself.

It also helped that this came right after a dental appointment where the hygenist when over technique with me - and it hurt!, but at least I knew that when it hurt like that I was not actually injuring my mouth.

Along the same line as the numbing gel, I also recommend doing lazy indulgent things like watching very bad television while flossing. Again, flossing is virtuous, standing around in a fluorescent bathroom looking at your own bloody teeth is not :P
posted by heyforfour at 8:22 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

We have these handle things, on which you thread regular floss of whatever your preference. They are absolutely amazing.
posted by odinsdream at 8:39 AM on September 12, 2012

I also love the Reach Gentle Gum Care woven floss. Very good to the gums!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:45 AM on September 12, 2012

About the pain: don't feel like you have to start flossing every day right away. Do it once, wait a few days until your gums have calmed down, then do it again. The interval that you have to wait will shrink until it's comfortable to floss every day.

Until my mid-20s I only flossed maybe once every few months and always woke up with swollen, painful gums the next morning. I used the technique above when starting to floss regularly; at first I waited 3-4 days between rounds of flossing, but within 3 weeks I could do it every day. Good luck.
posted by ecsh at 8:48 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, look at the floss as you floss and at all the crap that comes out of your mouth from in between your teeth. Better out than in.
posted by chavenet at 8:57 AM on September 12, 2012

I highly, HIGHLY recommend the Woven floss by Reach.

For what it's worth, this is the stuff that I mentioned earlier that almost made me STOP flossing because it shredded in my back teeth, I inhaled a long strand that remained stuck in the teeth, and it made me choke from its contact with my throat and from my frantic efforts to get it out.

Granted, I have a gag reflex from hell (thanks, endodontist who took out four wisdom teeth without knocking me out) but at this early stage for you, I'd seriously advise against this kind of floss.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:14 AM on September 12, 2012

Seconding either tape or "glide" floss. Now if only I didn't always end up with blood on my teeth.
posted by Occula at 9:20 AM on September 12, 2012

I'm not sure if I'm repeating anyone's comments above, but what helped me get into the habit of flossing was using really good floss (even regular wax floss hurts because my teeth are so tight), and easing into it gradually. I would aim to floss once a week, and once that was easy, move to twice a week. I also had a lot of trouble flossing right before bed - I would fall asleep on the sofa before bedtime, and once I woke up I just wanted to get into bed ASAP and flossing seemed way too onerous. So I started flossing after dinner, even though I'd often have a snack a few hours later. I figured any flossing was better than no flossing. Now that I've gotten into the habit of it, it doesn't hurt anymore, so I can do it faster, and I manage to floss at bedtime about 5-6 times a week - but I don't beat myself up for not achieving 7.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 9:28 AM on September 12, 2012

I hate floss sticks but love the flat, comfy floss. but here's what got me to floss daily: flossing in the shower. I don't know why but it works.
posted by changeling at 9:33 AM on September 12, 2012

The tenderness you have after flossing can be helped by rinsing with hydrogen peroxide. Mouth wash works too, but peroxide is best. Don't use it continually for months every day, but if you are flossing, you won't need to.
posted by annsunny at 9:49 AM on September 12, 2012

Sorry, but no one has the time and resources to independently research every health claim before deciding whether to follow the advice that's based on that claim. That would be making the perfect the enemy of the good. Everyone relies on conventional wisdom. I'm sure you do too a lot of the time. You're not actually against conventional wisdom on principle; you cherry-pick the conventional wisdom you want to "rebel" against as a pretext to do (or not do) whatever you feel like in the moment.

This also doesn't represent true independence or open-mindedness. If you're determined to flout whatever advice is given by those who have a scientific understanding of the matter, you're still letting yourself be restricted by what other people say -- just in the opposite direction.
posted by John Cohen at 9:49 AM on September 12, 2012

Also recommending the glide/tape floss. It's so much nicer.

When you're pulling it between your teeth, put a lot of pressure and effort to slide the floss up the side of one tooth, not directly up the middle. This should help avoid slamming into the piece of gum between the teeth, which is the painful part.
posted by Fig at 9:53 AM on September 12, 2012

Here's what will get you to floss regularly, if you are anything like me: eat steak for lunch. A chewy one, if possible. Then, before you go to bed that night, floss. Take note of just how many pieces of steak come out on the floss. Then note that those pieces have already been stuck in your mouth for around twelve hours. Then ask yourself how much longer those pieces would have stayed there, had you not flossed.

You wouldn't take steak that had been sitting at near 100 degrees for twelve hours and rub it all over the inside of your mouth. That's disgusting.

So, eat steak and then floss. Did it once, and I've been flossing regularly ever since.
posted by meese at 10:10 AM on September 12, 2012

I have the same issue you do and these Gum little rubber brushes have been a lifesaver. They also feel really good.

Also this my sound gross, but I keep them in my glove compartment and use them when stuck in traffic, which is a couple times a day.
posted by MrHalfwit at 10:39 AM on September 12, 2012

Nthing the tape. And urging you to keep trying different things, anything until you're able to get past the pain and continued a regular flossing routine.

Quick anecdote: I was never one to fear the dentist, but via a series of circumstances ceased going to one at all for the past 10 or so years. Just this past month I had a very painful tooth (turned out to be a lost filling which I hadn't noticed and left too long resulting in cracked tooth below gum line) and was forced to quickly find a new dentist and undergo lots of extended/expensive appointments for cleaning, X-rays, and repair of (so far) that bad tooth. During the extended first exam, the dentist poked at my gums with a pointy tool and called out numbers to the hygienist; turns out he was measuring the depth of the "pockets" in my gums. Afterward he said "You're lucky you've apparently been flossing regularly - none of the pockets are very deep except in the very back...you've probably saved yourself a trip to a periodontist."
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:42 AM on September 12, 2012

My father, who was not a flosser for a very long time, was given a model something like this. Keep the flosser in a central location, like in your living room or your office - someplace where you spend a lot of time hanging out. Then, you see it out of the context of the bathroom and associate it with other everyday tasks, like watching tv and checking email.

I find that a zig-zagging technique helps me get in between teeth without the slicing effect that you describe: rather than pulling the floss into the space between teeth, visualize sliding the floss against and into the side of one of the two teeth that your flossing between. Come up the side of one tooth and down the other.

And as my father's dentist told him (it helped him so I'm passing it along to you), only floss the teeth that you want to keep.
posted by koucha at 10:43 AM on September 12, 2012

Try out a few different brands of floss, they do make a difference. Glide Dental Floss is an excellent product.
When starting out, don't pressure yourself to get it perfect every time, flossing badly is still better than not flossing at all - you will get better with practice.
Lastly floss is cheap, it's much easier to control when you have a decent length to work with so start with a piece as long as your arm.
posted by Lanark at 11:30 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with annsunny , hydrogen peroxide helps a lot with the bleeding/pain/itchiness of sore gums.
posted by sportbucket at 11:30 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sensodyne or similar toothpaste will also reduce gum sensitivity. Buy a few different flosses and see which you like best (I am also a Glide fan). Realize that you're participating in self-care with a ton of evidence supporting its utility, not just bowing to a pointless social convention.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:48 AM on September 12, 2012

First the floss gets stuck between the tops of two teeth, then when I push down hard enough to get it through, it feels like it slices the gum open. Every time.

This really sounds like you're not flossing correctly to me. You're not supposed to pull down hard towards the gum when you floss: the floss is supposed to go in the gap between the tooth and the gum and dislodge all the cruft that's built up in there since the last time you did it. Now obviously, this gap isn't straight, it's curved to follow the curve of your teeth. So how do you get the floss down there without cutting into the gum? Simple: you pull the floss either forwards or backwards against the tooth you're flossing: for each gap, go down the side of one tooth first, then the other.

If you're having trouble getting the floss inbetween your teeth in the first place (I suffer from this) then firstly try tape instead of straight floss and secondly, make sure that your working the floss/tape back and forth between your teeth and gently pulling it towards your gum as you do so. This way, you steadily work the floss past the tight part where your teeth are touching without having to yank it through and pull it straight into your gum (ow!).

Does any of that make sense?
posted by pharm at 12:29 PM on September 12, 2012

I hated flossing. I used to tell people how much I hated it by pointing out that I flossed for a couple months leading up to a dentist visit, and they asked me if I'd been flossing, so I said "if they can't tell, how important can it be?" Yeah, I was a jerk.

But after years of knowing I should floss and not doing it, someone actually explained the technique to me, and almost overnight I became a daily flosser. It's much more comfortable, even for me with my slightly-crammed mouth. So maybe this will be the revelation you're seeking? It’s been mentioned above, but not in detail. (also, ribbon floss is SO SO SO worth the expense and will make the below advice even better)

The floss should follow the surfaces of each tooth, not land directly on the gum. The gums are there and you’re going to be sliding the floss between the gums and tooth, but ideally the floss will follow the tooth’s surface all the way down to minimize irritation to the gums. My whole life I had gone straight down between the teeth, which results in the floss impacting the soft part of the gum between the teeth directly, which rightfully hurts and probably will never stop hurting. It’s also ineffective: the floss should slide slightly between the tooth and the gum to remove any food trapped slightly below the gum line. Instead, when you floss you should be pulling it towards one tooth or the other so it nicely follows that tooth down. So when you do the gap in the very center of your teeth, pick a tooth (say, the right one) and pull slightly in that direction. Not hard, just enough so the floss follows that tooth. Keep pulling slightly in that direction and move up or down the tooth so the floss fits into the separation between the gum and the tooth and (critically) hugs the tooth's surface as it goes up or down. The slight pull in one direction means the floss will not put direct pressure on your gums, it will just follow the tooth and fit a cm or two into the separation between the tooth and the gum. That’s where the cruft you’re targeting is, anyway. Then I lift slightly (not out from between the teeth, just enough to avoid the tallest part of the gum) and go to the other tooth. The places where the floss catches still suck, but in general this should make it much more pleasant because you’re sliding down the smooth surfaces of your teeth and keeping pressure off your gums instead of slicing into your gums by going straight down onto the soft gum tissue.

Also, I had mild gingivitis and found that regularly using mouthwash (use Act, Listerine burns terribly) helped keep that in check, which helped me floss more, which also helped with the inflammation. So maybe start using a mouthwash as well if you aren’t already.

My final piece of advice is to start treating your daily shower / tooth / hair routine like a little treat to yourself. I used to consider it wasted time and a hassle, but I've started to treat it like my time and that makes taking a little extra time easier. I turn on a podcast and take a little time, and I'm not rushing, cutting myself with a razor, or irritating my gums anymore.
posted by Tehhund at 12:44 PM on September 12, 2012

Have you seen a dentist? I am not one but if you have not been flossing since...ever, you might have problems and that might explain your pain. See a dentist.
posted by massysett at 1:03 PM on September 12, 2012

Getting a Sonicare Air Floss really helped me. Like a WaterPik, it's not as good as actual flossing, but I found it a lot easier to remember/want to do.
posted by bookdragoness at 2:07 PM on September 12, 2012

Plenty of people here have good advice about floss and stuff. I have something for the "independent thinker" part. Do you tell yourself, "I should floss"? Or otherwise use "should" language in your thoughts about this? Try changing it to "want" and see how it feels. "I want to floss my teeth regularly." "I want to floss my teeth now." That might not feel true, but it might also shift how you think about the task.

(Also, no one is going to know you floss regularly if you don't tell them. Except maybe your dental hygienist will be able to tell.)
posted by purple_bird at 2:13 PM on September 12, 2012

To be blunt, if you're an adult and you still feel like you shouldn't do something because it is "good for you", you really should see a therapist about that, because "good for you" is something that you should be seeking out as an adult who can take the long view on issues of health and well-being. Not being able to project forward like that will impact a lot of areas in your life besides flossing, whether you realize it or not.
posted by davejay at 3:48 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I push down hard enough to get it through, it feels like it slices the gum open.

I have really tight teeth and had the same problem until I started using the floss sticks. Now instead of pushing the floss down with my hands I gently bite down on the top of the floss stick just until it pops past the resistance. My jaw is apparently much more responsive and able to react faster than my hands, so as soon as I feel the floss pop through I stop biting down and never run into that too much force problem that I used to have. Plus the sticks are kind of fun!
posted by platinum at 4:10 PM on September 12, 2012

I recently found out that one of my parents has a genetic gum disease. It went undiagnosed for years and now four teeth have to be taken out. My parent never knew why their gums were bleeding, so they brushed their teeth harder, pushing the gum back. The teeth can't be replaced because there's not enough gum to hold them. The whole family was told that flossing is the single best way to prevent gum disease from taking hold. I floss every day now purely because I can see how painful and expensive it is to have infected gums.
posted by Saebrial at 5:28 AM on September 16, 2012

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