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History of Dental Floss

Image of dental floss.

Daily flossing is an excellent way to prevent gum disease and tooth decay, but it wasn't always so easy to find flossing material. Although every drugstore now features a large selection of floss and flossing tools, commercially made floss only became available in the late 1800s. Before then, our ancestors relied on objects found in nature to keep their teeth clean and free of plaque.

Even Cavemen Understood the Benefits of Flossing

The spaces between teeth tend to trap small pieces of food, particularly when you eat meat or vegetables that contain stringy fibers. Cavemen found the sensation just as uncomfortable as we do today and used small sticks to remove debris, according to a February 2017 article in The Science of Nature. When researchers examined plaque on 1.2 million-year-old fossilized remains, they discovered wood fibers among the meat, grass and seeds. Because the fibers weren't digested, they theorized that ancient man used them to clean the spaces between the teeth.

Egyptians Were Dental Care Innovators

Even in 3500 BC, people were concerned about dental hygiene. Archaeologists have found rough toothbrushes fashioned from twigs in Egyptian tombs. The brushes were made by fraying the end of the twig, which made the tool ideal for both flossing and brushing.

A Man Ahead of His Time: Dr. Levi Spear Parmly

People may have removed stuck food from their teeth with sticks occasionally, but it wasn't until the early 1800s that the habit was regarded as an important part of good oral hygiene. New Orleans dentist Dr. Levi Spear Parmly recommended the use of floss in his 1819 book, A Practical Guide to the Management of Teeth. He suggested using silk thread to dislodge food particles and reduce cavities and gum disease.

Unfortunately, silk thread wasn't cheap, and many people couldn't afford it. They removed large pieces of food with wooden toothpicks and dislodged smaller trapped particles with horsehairs, sewing thread, quills and other slim objects.

Dental Floss Enters the Mainstream

Despite Dr. Parmly's recommendation, flossing didn't become popular until 1882, the year that unwaxed silk floss was first sold by the Codman and Shurtleff Company, a surgical instrument manufacturer. Realizing the dental floss was a largely untapped market, the Johnson & Johnson company introduced their own patented silk floss in 1898.

Johnson & Johnson used silk thread leftover from the production of sterile sutures to create a product that was affordable and could be mass produced, according to a blog post by Margaret Gurowitz, the Johnson & Johnson historian. The waxed and unwaxed floss was packaged in round containers that featured a sharp metal edge for easy cutting.

Silk remained the ideal floss material until World War II when the material was needed to construct parachutes for the troops. It was replaced by nylon, a material that didn't shred easily, unlike silk.

Throughout the years, flavored floss, flossing picks, interdental picks and other flossing tools have made keeping our teeth clean easy and convenient. Even though floss is inexpensive and readily available today, only 40 percent of Americans floss daily, according to a 2014 Delta Dental Survey.

Regular flossing helps keep your breath fresh and also prevents the build-up of plaque, a sticky, bacteria-laden film that causes tooth decay. When plaque remains on your teeth too long, it eventually turns into a hard deposit called tartar that can't be removed simply by brushing your teeth. Although you can't see plaque, tartar is very visible. If you've ever noticed a gray or brown build up on your teeth, you have tartar.

The longer tartar remains on your teeth, the greater your risk of gum disease. Luckily, a thorough cleaning at your regular dental appointments will remove both tartar and plaque.

Flossing daily and visiting the dentist every six months for a cleaning is the best way to protect your teeth and gums. If it's time for your next appointment, or you have a toothache or another dental problem, call us to schedule an appointment.


Kilmer House: Dental Floss, 3/14/08

Oral-B: The History of Dental Floss

Time: How Dental Floss Became a Thing in the First Place, 8/2/16

New York Times: Who Made That Dental Floss?, 10/19/12

Spear: A Brief History of Dental Floss, 1/16/13

The Science of Nature: Diet And Environment 1.2 Million Years Ago Revealed Through Analysis Of Dental Calculus From Europe’s Oldest Hominin At Sima Del Elefante, Spain, 2/17

Dental: 2014 Oral Health and Well-Being Survey

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