Should You Floss Before or After Brushing Your Teeth?

Brushing and flossing are popular oral hygiene practices which most of us are already used to.

Right from nursery school, we have been taught to brush our teeth at least two times a day; when you wake up in the morning and last thing before you go to bed at night. We might have even learned nursery rhymes about how to brush our teeth growing up.

Mum or dad would remind you to brush your teeth and perhaps, start flossing at least once a day (recommended from the age of twelve) in addition to brushing. You then grow up learning the habit of brushing and flossing which is fantastic! The debate now is this: should you floss before brushing or brush before flossing?

floss and brush

Should You Floss Before or After Brushing?

People have different views and practices. Those that floss before brushing may argue that flossing takes away the bulk of plaque and debris from between the teeth, making it easier for the toothbrush bristles to clean the teeth, in turn, making brushing more effective. They also argue that flossing first cleans out some parts of the surface of the teeth, making it come in more contact with the fluoride in toothpaste.

Those that brush before flossing are of the ideology that flossing takes away debris that was missed by the toothbrush. Some people just love to play around with a piece of floss in their mouths after brushing.

To answer this simply, there is no correct order for brushing and flossing”. According to the American Dental Association, it really does not matter which you do first. As long as you are brushing and flossing, you are fine! There is no right or wrong here.

The only situation where you may need to floss first is when you are using a water flosser. They are said to be twice as effective as regular floss. You may floss first just so that you would not need to rinse your mouth again after brushing, just so that the fluoride in your mouth is not rinsed out.

Why Do I Need To Brush And Floss Anyways?

In order to get a grasp of why we fuss about brushing and flossing, we need to understand this substance called “dental plaque”.

Dental plaque is the reason why your dentist would remind you to clean or go over your cleaning practices at every visit. They might even send you home with a new toothbrush and a packet of dental floss.

Plaque can be harmful to your teeth if allowed to grow unchecked. Brushing your teeth, as well as cleaning interdentally with a floss helps to remove plaque which is able to adhere to the surface of the teeth.

A toothbrush is basically a device that usually has a handle for easy grasp and a bristled head that cleans the teeth. These days, toothbrushes come in a variety of designs and usage options. There are manual brushes and electric brushes in different designs. Toothbrushes also come in different textures –  soft, medium and hard.

A dental floss, which is also called dental tape, is an interdental cleaning aide. It is a flexible strand which is usually made from nylon filaments or plastic monofilaments. It basically helps to dislodge debris and plaque trapped in between the teeth (in the interdental spaces) and other areas that are difficult to access especially with your toothbrush. Flossing helps to reduce the likelihood of developing gingivitis and dental caries.

What Is Dental Plaque?

Plaque is an adherent film containing bacteria. It starts to form as a thin film on the surface of the teeth. If left alone, it starts to accumulate and build up until it forms a creamy or yellowish colored adherent deposit on the surface of the teeth. You have to be aware that plaque formation is a completely natural process. Even if you do not eat, plaque would still form. Have you run your tongue over teeth at some point in the day and noticed it felt rough? That is plaque right there. Here is a quick snapshot of how plaque forms:

  • You just had a nice meal containing starches and sugars (carbohydrates), for example, milk, cake, etc.
  • Remnants of these foods are left on the teeth. Bacteria that exist in the mouth naturally then feed on these food substances.
  • These bacteria eventually secrete acids as a waste product, which, over a length of time, attack the enamel of the teeth or the outer surface of the roots of the teeth (the cementum).
  • This action is what leads to cavities, also called dental caries or tooth decay.

Plaque is initially soft but if left to build up on the tooth surface, it becomes hard and even more difficult to remove. At this point, your toothbrush and floss would have little or no efficiency in taking off the hardened plaque. Hardened plaque is called tartar or calculus. Tartar can only be removed by professional cleaning (scaling and polishing). Plaque could also result in bleeding gums or even avoidable inflammation in the body. Gingivitis, which is the inflammation of the gums, is a risk factor for health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

How Can I Prevent Plaque From Forming?


These simple tips can prevent plaque build-up:

  • Brushing your teeth at least two times daily with preferably a soft-bristled toothbrush and a toothpaste that contains fluoride.
  • Floss in between your teeth, especially those tight spaces and hard to reach areas. Do this at least once a day. There are other types of interdental cleaners such as interdental brushes, wooden plaque removers and so on. Definitely choose whichever you feel more comfortable using.

  • You could include an adjunct to oral hygiene such as an antibacterial mouthwash. They help to reduce the formation and build up of plaque.

  • Add vegetables to your meals. They not only help to remove food, but they also help saliva to neutralize acids that cause plaque. Eat healthy foods and keep your diet balanced.
  • Make sure to visit your dentist at least twice a year.

So much has been said. Now, let us revisit our very commonly asked question.

What to Consider When Choosing a Toothbrush

  • How easy is it to hold? Most toothbrushes are designed in such a way that the handles are non-slip to give a firmer grip. It would be annoying if your toothbrush kept slipping out of your hands from the slipperiness of your toothpaste every time you brush. This may not be such a problem as most toothbrush designs take care of that concern but still look out for that.
  • How big or small is the toothbrush head? You certainly do not want a toothbrush that feels too huge or too tiny in your mouth. Your toothbrush should be easy to maneuver in your mouth and get to difficult areas such as the back of your molars. It should be a comfortable size and the handle should be a reasonable length. Most times, adult toothbrush heads that measure one inch long and a half inch wide are the most comfortable to use.
  • What is the bristle texture? You have the option of choosing a soft, medium or hard bristled toothbrush. Dentists would generally discourage you from getting a hard bristled brush as this can damage your teeth. Hard toothbrushes can be very abrasive and wear off your enamel, strip your gums and expose your roots. It could even go as far as wearing off the surface of your roots. A soft or medium bristled brush is recommended. Soft-bristled brushes are considered the safest to use and they are flexible enough to clean adequately. If you are a vigorous brusher, you are better off going for a soft bristled brush.
  • How effective is the toothbrush? It is totally up to you to choose either a manual brush or an electric brush. Although studies have shown no significant difference in the effectiveness of both manual and electric brushes, some observations suggest that an electric toothbrush called a “rotation oscillation toothbrush” may be more effective in cleaning compared to regular toothbrushes. The bristles of this special brush move round, forward and backward.

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Chioma Udechukwu, BDS

Dr. Chioma Udechukwu graduated with a bachelor's degree in dentistry (BDS) from the University of Lagos and spent years practicing dentistry. She relocated to Canada to pursue her dental career in a more enabling environment while continuing to work on her passion of educating everyday people about their oral health.
Chioma Udechukwu, BDS

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