Can Dentists Tell That You Lie About Flossing?

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

When it comes to dental hygiene, I like to think that I'm in the minty-fresh percentile. I dutifully visit my dentist twice a year and brush several times a day, dancing those bristles along the gum line and scraping the roof of my mouth until I gag. But I'll be honest: I don't floss.

On the rare occasion that I do thread string between my teeth like a goddamn caveman, it's a highly unpleasant experience. The tight vise of thread around my fingers turns them plump and purple from lack of circulation. I forget how mirrors work and fumble to find an angle that doesn't slice into my gums. On the plus side, I'm given a friendly reminder as to the taste of my own blood. I'm definitely getting enough iron.

This experience is magnified in the dentist chair, but when the hygienist pops the all-too-loaded question about flossing, I can't help but lie. I've always wondered if they can see through my shiny veneer of dishonesty, so on my most recent trip to the dentist, I decided to come clean and find out.

Flickr/Steve Snodgrass

Gums don't lie

Despite going to the dentist every six months, my regularly scheduled cleaning feels anything but routine. My petite hygienist entered my mouth, scraping at enamel with a miniature pick ax and hitting wellsprings of blood in my bubbly gums. This part's uncomfortable, but flossing is when the dribble hits the fan. Blood splatters on my bib as my eyes bulge. She just has to know that this isn't a thing that happens before I go to bed every night.

After 15 minutes in the coal mine, my hygenist came up for air and popped the question: “Do you floss regularly?” I sucked it up (my pride and blood), told her "not really," and asked if she could tell. She said "yes."

When I asked how, she told me it was obvious. My gums swell up like like Violet Beauregarde and bleed like a severed artery. That's not to mention the abundance of plaque, which is hard to miss because, if commercials are to be believed, they look like green boogers with angry faces.

Flickr/Andy Wright

They don't know how deep your lies go

For the next question in my ambush interview, I asked if the hygienist could guess the last time I flossed. She said "no," which indicates that two weeks of plaque buildup and gum tenderization are indistinguishable from a lifetime of neglect. Or maybe she was just being nice.

So now that I knew that there are no fast ones being pulled in the dentist chair, it was time to find out how this miner of molars handles dishonesty. She said that when people are clearly lying about flossing, she never confronts them, but rather suggests that perhaps they need to "work on their technique," making sure that they're pulling the thread completely down into the gum line along the whole perimeter of the tooth, not just carving between teeth like a caveman.

Flickr/Steve Snodgrass

Your teeth don't look as great as they say

Whenever an anti-dentite friend of mine schedules a cleaning for the first time years, they always return with the same line: The dentist said their teeth look great! They don't floss, neglect their six-month appointments, and I'd wager they aren't scrapping the top of their mouth and gagging like a -- get your mind out of the gutter!

Thing is, the dentist sees your teeth after they've been pillaged of plaque. The assistant briefs them on any big issues, but they're looking in your mouth after it's been given the pampering of a lifetime. When I asked my own dentist about this, she shrugged it off and said that telling someone their teeth look great is more of a pleasantry.

Like, "how is your day?" "It's great!" "How are your teeth?" "They're great!"

Flickr/John Dill

Don't worry: the dentist won't shame you for not flossing

Now, perhaps this makes my dentist sound disingenuous or apathetic. I can assure you she's anything but. I've been seeing her for nearly 20 years, and she's a caring professional, but what came next in our conversation was perhaps the most enlightening.

More often than they're lied to, dentists feel like priests working a confessional. Patients break down and admit their sins, asking forgiveness and promising to floss every night and never even look at a Milk Dud again.

I didn't grovel to my dentist like a child this time, but I do carry some baggage from a brace-faced middle-class adolescence. I still think of a dentist as an enforcer of habits, a test to be passed, a guardian of my fragile chompers. But the next thing my dentist told me changed that.

She said that she's not my Mom.

Of course she thinks I should floss every day, cares about the well-being of all of her patients' oral ecosystems, and is proud that my employer offers a dental plan, but at the end of the day it's not personally consequential to her if I'm flossing. She doesn't lie awake with her presumably plaque-free gum line and perfect-toothed husband passing quiet judgement on my habits while thumbing through the pages of Dentist Monthly.

Apparently we're only lying to ourselves when we lie about flossing, and this whole process would hurt much less if just start flossing every night instead of hiding my string in a hole in the wall like a caveman.

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. This is not the first time he has promised to floss more in an author bio, and it will not be the last. Follow him to oral accountability at @Dannosphere.