It’s no secret that flossing is good for your teeth and gums, but we’d be ignoring a huge swath of people’s experiences who’ve tried flossing only to be met with painful, bleeding gums. “Will it ever stop hurting?” you might ask after trying it once or twice.
The answer, luckily, is yes! To better understand why, we need to start with why your gums are in pain and bleeding in the first place.
Why do gums bleed when flossing?
Most people will experience their gums bleeding if they start flossing for the first time or after not flossing for a while. However, while this is a common experience, that doesn’t mean it’s “normal”. If your gums are bleeding when you floss, it’s a sign of something being wrong.
The most common reasons for bleeding gums are:
- Gingivitis (a reversible disease that causes inflammation of the gums)
- You’re brushing too hard or your toothbrush isn’t soft enough
- You’re flossing incorrectly in a way that damages your gums
Usually, of those three, gingivitis is the most common cause (though we’ll address all three in this article). Most people don’t realize they have it as it's tough to distinguish the shade of swollen/inflamed gums from their healthy counterparts.
Healthy Gums vs Unhealthy Gums
Healthy gums will have a desaturated, light pink coloration and firm appearance. If you have gingivitis the coloration will gradually become more red in hue. It can be hard to tell, especially if you have only a minor case, but bleeding gums when at the dentist or flossing is usually a good bet that you have at least a minor case of gingivitis.
The good news about gingivitis is that it’s reversible, but we’ll cover that more later. For now, we’ll look at periodontitis.
Periodontitis is a serious disease that damages the gums permanently. The damage can’t be reversed, though it can still be stopped from progressing further. Periodontitis will look like gingivitis but with deepening pockets around each tooth, receding gums, and an even darker red coloration than gingivitis.
If you have periodontitis, it’s important that you see your dentist right away. Untreated it could lead to tooth loss.
How to reduce pain/bleeding when flossing
Just because your gums are bleeding and or hurting now, doesn’t mean they have to every time you floss. In fact, in just a few simple steps you can ensure that when you floss in the future it’ll be a pain-free experience.
Let’s start with ensuring that you are using proper flossing technique. Technique will depend on the method you choose to employ, so we’ll cover both string and water flossing techniques.
1. Use Proper Technique
How to use string floss without causing pain and bleeding gums:
- Start with an 18”-24” piece of floss. (If using a floss pick, you will obviously skip this step)
- Thread the floss between your teeth. If the gap is tight, it’s best to work the floss into it using a back and forth motion. DO NOT pop the floss into the tooth gap, this will damage the gums, causing pain and bleeding.
- Curve the floss into a C shape so it contours the shape of your tooth.
- Gently floss between the teeth by "scraping" in an up and down motion, easing into the pockets on each side. Do not go too deep into the pockets as that can cause damage to the gums leading to, you guessed it, pain and bleeding.
- Remove the floss and move onto the next tooth.
This process can take 3 to 15 minutes to do correctly (depending on the proximity of your teeth and whether or not you have any dental fixtures). And, as you can see above, if done incorrectly it can also cause pain and bleeding. In fact, some dentists don’t even recommend their patients use string floss because they feel it’s too difficult to use correctly (recent studies show that almost no one, aside from dental professionals, actually use string floss correctly). For this reason, dentists often recommend the use of water flossers.
Even if you flossed correctly doesn’t mean you won’t bleed or have a pain-free experience. As we mentioned previously, it’s common to suffer from gingivitis which will increase the sensitivity of your gums and make them more prone to bleeding. But if you’ve been flossing regularly and you’re still suffering from bleeding or painful gums it may mean you’re not using the correct technique or there’s another underlying cause.
How to use water flossers to achieve a pain-free flossing experience:
Water flossing is far easier to use in a manner that doesn’t damage your gums. That being said, there are still a couple of tricks you can use to make your next floss more pleasant:
- Fill your reservoir with warm water instead of cold water. Users often report that it’s more comfortable for both sensitive teeth and sensitive gums.
- Set your pressure to the lowest setting and work your way up to higher pressures on week 2 of flossing.
- If bleeding, swelling, or pain lasts longer than a few days of using a water flosser, you should visit your dentist as there may be another underlying cause.
Should You Floss Before or After Brushing Your Teeth?
This may come as a surprise, but there’s actually a preferred order when it comes to flossing and brushing your teeth. It’s pretty common for people to brush their teeth and floss after, but there are a couple of recent studies that suggest the opposite order may be better.
When you floss, you’re dislodging plaque and bacteria from between teeth and underneath the gumline. If this process is done after brushing, that bacteria and plaque will remain in your mouth until the next time you brush! But if you brush immediately after flossing, those materials are brushed away along with all the other bacteria and plaque.
On top of this, by removing the plaque in between your teeth and gums, you enable the fluoride in your toothpaste to do a better job of getting in the small places, strengthening your tooth enamel against cavities and decay.
2. Switch to Water over String
Water flossing has a huge leg up on string floss in that the water won’t damage your gum tissues. It’s strong enough to deliver a clean that’s more effective than string, but won’t damage your gums like string can.
Not all water flossers are equal though. Using a single jet flosser requires you to manually aim the jet at the gaps between teeth and along the gumline. Additionally, you get best results when the jet is aimed at a 90-degree angle to your gumline -- this can be particularly challenging to apply for your molars and the backside of your teeth. Positioning the tip at the correct angle can be un-ergonomic to say the least.
This is why we designed Instafloss. Instafloss makes flossing as automatic as possible by aiming for you. The jets are always at 90 degrees and no area is skipped over by user error (in fact, Instafloss flosses each are multiple times). In the process it greatly reduces the time needed to get an effective water floss as well, from 2 minutes down to just 10 seconds.
In addition to making your morning and evening floss as quick as possible, Instafloss makes them as comfortable as can be. By aiming for you, Instalfoss is perfectly positioned to floss the spaces between your teeth and around each tooth underneath the gum line, minimizing pressure (and thus aggravation) of areas that don’t need to be flossed while providing a firm yet gentle massage for the areas targeted by Instafloss’ pulsing water jets.
3. Floss more consistently
Yes, when your dentist (or hygienist) said you’re bleeding because you don’t floss enough, they really meant it. Think for a moment about a small cut. If you don’t take the time to clean out the cut when it first happens, it’ll become red and swollen, the result of your body using inflammation to keep the infection at bay while healing the cut.
Your gums will do the same in response to the plaque and bacteria in your mouth.
So the solution, much like with a cut or scrape, is to clean out the source of the inflammation. In this case, that’s the plaque and bacteria that builds up in between your teeth and underneath your gumline.
It’s pretty common for people to say that flossing consistently builds up your gums tolerance to the activity, but that’s not necessarily true. Instead, flossing regularly enables your body to reduce inflammation which in turn decreases your chances of bleeding. And since inflammation is a feedback loop, reducing inflammation anywhere in your body helps reduce inflammation everywhere in your body.
4. Switch to a soft bristle brush
When it comes to tooth brushes, there’s a wide variety of materials and designs, but too often it’s tempting to ignore these variances and just pick whichever brush is on sale. We’ve come a long way from using frayed twigs, and modern advancements have led us to develop a better understanding of which type of toothbrush is optimal for gum and tooth health.
The American Dental Association (ADA) actually has a list of recommendations when it comes to toothbrushes including not only the softness of the bristles but the pattern too! The best toothbrushes are those with soft bristles that feature multiple layers and/or alternating angles for their bristles.
This recommendation is the most balanced approach, providing an effective brushing experience while minimizing the risk of damaging the gums due to over abrasion. Technically, medium bristle brushes are best at removing biofilm and plaque, but the chances of damaging gums usually outweigh the potential benefits.
Other Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Bleeding or Painful Gums
Q: Can my dentist really tell if I don’t floss?
Yes! Dentists use periodontal charts to track the health of your gums, marking information like pocket depth (the depth of the space between your gums and teeth), bleeding, and inflammation down. All of this information can be combined to give an accurate picture of gum health, in turn, informing your dentist how well you’re cleaning (and thus flossing) your gums/teeth.
Example perio chart above. Your dentist may use a different chart and methodology, but generally the approach is the same with red indicating bleeding and measurements in mm indicating pocket depth. In a healthy mouth, the pocket depth is usually between 1 and 3 millimeters (mm). Pockets deeper than 4 mm may indicate periodontitis. Pockets deeper than 5 mm cannot be cleaned well. (source)
Q: Can I skip the floss and just use mouthwash?
Mouthwash can be a great addition to your oral care routine, but it’s no replacement for flossing and brushing. Typically mouthwash will contain beneficial compounds like fluoride to strengthen your teeth while using antimicrobials to fight off harmful bacteria. This can help reduce the occurrence of cavities and prevent buildup of plaque, but it doesn’t remove the plaque that’s already present. You still need to use either dental floss or water flossing to remove the buildup of plaque between your teeth and around the gumline.
Q: Why does flossing smell bad?
If you’ve just started flossing for the first time or after not flossing for a while, you may notice a foul odor. This is the result of rotting food particles being lodged free. With regular use, food particles won’t have a chance to begin breaking down in the spaces between your teeth and gums, meaning this smell will fade. If you notice that a foul odor persists despite flossing and brushing your teeth regularly, you should bring it up with your dentist. It could hint at other underlying issues.
Q: For how long should I floss?
For string floss, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends you spend at least 2 minutes flossing. That being said, it could take up to 15 minutes to floss with string if you have dental fixtures to work around or have impaired mobility.
Single jet water flossers also require 2 minutes to get a complete floss, but Instafloss only takes 10 seconds to floss your entire mouth. We achieved this by designing the Instafloss mouthpiece in a way that it automatically targets the gumline of both rows of teeth as well as the front and backside of the teeth simultaneously.
Q: How often should I floss?
The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that you floss twice a day.
Q: Can you floss too deep?
Yes and no. Ideally, you want to clean the entirety of the pockets surrounding each tooth. These pockets, known as "periodontal pockets", can range in depth depending on your gum health. Healthy gums typically feature a pocket depth of 1-3mm, but if you are suffering from periodontal disease your pockets will become deeper.
With string floss, there’s two issues at hand. First, If your pocket depth is less than 3mm, damaging the pocket by flossing too deep is possible. But on top of that, if your pocket depth is greater than 3mm, the string floss will not be able to clean deep enough! This has to do with the thickness of dental floss preventing it from fitting deeper into the gums.
Water flossing on the other hand doesn’t suffer from either of those problems. Because the water molecules are much smaller, they can clean up to 6mm into perio pockets. On top of that, the the pressure in water flossing is controlled in a way that they it won’t damage the gums either like string can.
Q: Does flossing weaken teeth?
Overly rough flossing with a saw like motion against the teeth can result in wearing down the tooth enamel, but is unlikely. If you fear damaging your teeth, switching to a water flosser, like instafloss, should put you at ease. Water flossers are not shown to damage the teeth or gums.
Q: Does flossing loosen teeth?
Flossing improperly could result in gum recession which would eventually lead to tooth loosening. However the chances of this are rare as you’d need to be overly rough, violently pulling on the gums in order to see this kind of result. Water flossing (as opposed to string) has not been shown to damage the gumline like string can.
Q: Can you floss wrong?
Yes! Common mistakes include missing places like the far side of the last molars, sides of the teeth, and beneath the gumline. Furthermore, when using string in particular, flossing can cause damage to your gums if done incorrectly!
As we go on to mention below, water flossing removes the potential for damaging your teeth, but single jet flossers still leave the issue of ineffectively flossing. That’s why we designed Instafloss. Instafloss aims for you, ensuring that you get a perfect floss every time.
Q: Can flossing wrong damage gums?
String flossing has been shown to damage the gums when done incorrectly. An example of this is when string “pops” into the gums as you try to wedge it between close fitting teeth. On the other hand, water flossing has not been shown to damage the gums, resulting in dentists generally agreeing that it is the safer option if you fear flossing incorrectly.
Q: Can floss push food into gums?
While the chances of pushing food deeper into the gums is unlikely (especially if your gums are healthy and pocket depth is shallow), dentists do say it is possible to push food deeper into the gums when using string floss. In these situations dentists often recommend using water flossing to dislodge the food particles from your gums rather than string floss.