Segal: Flossed and found

Rabbi David Segal
Continental Divine

This week, The New York Times dropped a bombshell on the flossing community. In an article titled, “Feeling Guilty About Not Flossing? Maybe There’s No Need” (Aug. 2), Catherine Saint Louis questioned the science behind Big Floss’s claim that flossing prevents cavities. After tossing this grenade at everything flossers hold dear, Saint Louis backpedaled: “Maybe the evidence that flossing reduces tooth decay or gum disease does not hold up because we are all such poor flossers.”

I resent the implication that we are all poor flossers. I’ve been a flosser for as long as I can remember, and a good one at that, if I may say so myself. I have a hunch it started when I saw a sign in my pediatric dentist’s office that said: “You don’t have to floss all your teeth — just the ones you want to keep.” I wanted to keep all my teeth; I still do.

I no longer floss out of a sense of fear or obligation, but rather because I don’t feel clean until I do. Brushing alone isn’t enough to give me that fresh feeling. Call me high-maintenance. Or call me an overachiever: I like getting a good grade from the dentist. I’m not trying to brag about my personal hygiene habits. It doesn’t take any special skill or talent, just a nightly choice available to princes and paupers alike. If nothing else goes right in my day, at least I can look forward to a wholesome, cleansing flossing before bed.

For you flossing skeptics, there’s a purely self-interested reason to floss early and often. Consider how much it hurts when the hygienist grabs that industrial strength floss at the end of your semiannual cleaning and goes to town on your gums. We frequent flossers emerge unscathed from what must be torture for the rest of you. It’s like getting a massage at a Turkish bath: You consented to it and paid for it, but you feel like you might have just been abused and you’re pretty sure you’re bleeding from somewhere.

Though I’m proud of my flossing resume, it hasn’t been one uninterrupted tale of oral glory. One night I decided to try a specialty rope floss that expands when wet. It thickens as it absorbs your saliva, increasing the abrasive surface area for a deeper clean. How could I consider myself a bona fide floss aficionado (aflossionado?) until I experienced this product? Also, it was cardamom flavored.

Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the permanent wire retainer attached since my teen years to my lower front teeth. As the amazing expanding rope floss expanded amazingly, it became lodged in my metal appliance. (While I take responsibility for my role in this miscalculation, I readily share the blame with the manufacturer, whose packaging did not adequately alert me to the risks.)

Panic set in quickly. Though I struggled mightily, I could not free the floss from between my front teeth. The pressure mounted, literally and figuratively. I was caught in a Chinese finger trap — the harder I fought it, the more I became ensnared. The more I pulled the floss, the more it shredded. The more it shredded, the more it hurt my teeth. The more it hurt, the more I salivated — and the more it continued to expand. It was a vicious cycle, and I was spiraling into the abyss.

I cried out into the darkness, waking my fiancee. She stumbled into the bathroom when she heard my whimpering. There I stood, shirtless and helpless, mangled floss dangling from my mouth. Instead of laughing at me — God bless her, it must have taken some effort to suppress that urge — she took pity on me. Tweezers in hand, she dislodged the knotty blockage and relieved the pressure on my tormented teeth. “Maybe expanding floss wasn’t the best idea,” she said as she slipped back under the covers.

I suppose I should conclude by making a pithy connection between flossing and current events. Like why hasn’t someone brought the sharing economy to the world of dental hygiene? I haven’t worked out all the details, including whether there’s a market for used dental floss, but I have identified a great name: Rental Floss. The business plan practically writes itself.

Or I could say something about flossing as a sign of our times. We’re so quick to point the finger at others and blame science for flossing’s failures. Yet we are so reticent to admit the role we play in our own problems, with our sporadic and slapdash flossing.

If only we had a president who could make America floss again.

Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be reached at or 970-925-8245. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.