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Dentists may get positively evangelical about the stuff, but dental floss has had a bad week. You could almost hear the sound of dental products firms’ share prices crashing to the floor, as The US Department for Health and Human Services and Agriculture was forced to admit there’s no clinical evidence for the benefits of flossing.

Millions of people around the world must be rejoicing – flossing, after all, isn’t exactly most people’s idea of bedtime fun – then asking themselves, what idiot started the rumour that flossing was a good thing for preventing tooth decay in the first place?

Well, thanks to the folk at Time magazine, I can tell you. The principle of flossing has probably been around since the first human to get food stuck in their teeth reached for a twig to evict it. But New Orleans-based Levi Spear Parmly first wrote about what we now know as dental floss back in 1819, in his book A Practical Guide to the Management of the Teeth. He writes about his numerous experiments to discover the cause of the ‘disorders of the teeth’, the results of which led him to believe the most common cause is ‘the relics of what we eat or drink… being allowed to accumulate, stagnate and putrefy… in the interstices of the teeth… or else in those indentures on their surface.

‘I can, with confidence, assert,’ adds Levi, ‘that if the teeth and gums are regularly cleaned with the dentrific apparatus, recommended by the author, no caries can possibly take place.’

The apparatus he’s referring to consists of three parts: a brush (‘hollow in the middle, to embrace every part of the teeth, except the interstices’), a polisher (‘for removing roughness, stains, &c. from the enamel, and restoring to the teeth their natural smoothness and colour’) and a ‘waxed silken thread’. The thread, says Levi, is the most important, and is to be ‘passed through the interstices of the teeth, between their necks and the arches of the gums, to dislodge that irritating matter which no brush can remove, and which is the real source of disease’.

So the idea originated in the US and spread throughout the world, becoming common dental hygiene practice within about 100 years.

Where next for dental floss now then, I wonder? Well I for one won’t be giving up my water flosser any time soon, clinical evidence or no clinical evidence.