We’ve all been told by our dentists (repeatedly!) that flossing is a necessary part of healthy teeth and gums—which is why we go through the tedious process of doing it every night.
But here’s what we’re not usually told: dental floss can be coated with some of the most persistent toxic chemicals around. This is particularly concerning with floss, because what you put in your mouth has direct access to your body and bloodstream.
From persistent toxic chemicals and unknown flavor ingredients, to the fact that so much floss is made of plastic (which comes with its own set of problems), it might seem impossible to follow dentist’s orders if you want to keep your children healthy. The good news is that there are safer floss options out there. But first, let’s break down the issues for a better understanding of what’s going on with this seemingly innocuous little oral hygiene product.
Most Floss is Coated with Persistent Toxic Chemicals
These chemicals are called Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, which, you could say, is quite a mouthful! Labeled PFAS for short, they’re a family of synthetic chemicals (manmade, i.e. not occurring in nature) commonly used to make everyday household items stain resistant, nonstick, and/or water resistant—think sports gear, furniture, cosmetics, carpets, and cookware. A lesser-known use is that these chemicals will also make dental floss glide smoothly between teeth.
The problem is that PFAS don’t easily break down in the environment (or your body.) In fact, they last in the environment longer than a human lifetime! Many PFAS chemicals are known to bioaccumulate, which means their concentration in the body increases over time, building up but not excreting or exiting the system. This might be problematic, considering many PFAS chemicals are linked to a range of toxic effects like adverse effects on sexual function and fertility, hormone disrupting capabilities, cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and more..
While there needs to be more study on PFAS’ impacts to human health and the environment, what research does exist suggests that avoiding these substances is prudent—especially when it comes to children putting these chemicals directly in their mouths through something like dental floss.
Dirty Secrets of Flavored Floss
Flavored floss can seem like a good idea to get the kids excited about this before-bed chore, but it can actually contain even more harmful chemicals. Because of trade secrets, it can just be listed as “flavor” on the label, but that flavor can be made up of any of more than 2,000 chemicals regulated by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the U.S. Because of loose definitions, even natural flavors can include synthetic ingredients like carriers, solvents, and preservatives.
The Trouble with Plastic Floss
The other real issue with floss is that it’s made from plastic—usually virgin plastic, but in some cases, recycled plastic. Plastic can contain toxic chemicals that can impact our health. While there are many chemicals of concern in plastic, two of the primary concerns include phthalates and bisphenols.
Many phthalates, which soften plastics to make them less brittle, are linked to a wide range of hormone disrupting impacts. Bisphenols are plastic polymers, meaning they make up the plastic itself. Some bisphenols, the most infamous of which is BPA, have also been linked to hormone disruption.
Plastics are also problematic for the environment as they don’t readily break down. Instead, they just break into smaller and smaller pieces, contributing to pollution of waterways and our oceans, which impacts marine life.
Don’t Skip Flossing. Here are Tips for Safer Dental Floss.
The good news is that you can both follow dentist’s orders and keep your family healthy.
- Forego coated floss, if appropriate for your teeth and gums.
- If shopping for coated floss, opt for a coating made of beeswax.
- Avoid floss labeled as “nonstick” or “glides easily,” unless all components are disclosed. (But note that PFAS coatings are not usually disclosed.)
- Look for natural fiber dental floss made from biodegradable materials like silk or cotton, as opposed to plastic.
- Look for biodegradable floss.
- Skip flavored flosses—unless the flavor ingredients are listed individually.
- Instead look for floss flavored with real food ingredients, plants and plant oils or extracts.
- If you have questions about your favorite floss, contact the company to ask if the floss contains PFAS, plastic, or flavors.