Kalliopi Monoyios

The Conscious Consumer’s Guide to Dental Floss

Inevitably, when people learn that the floss I use in my work is plastic, they ask: What should I use instead?  I can’t answer that for you, but I can tell you what I’ve learned about various flosses through my work. The short answer is that floss exists on a continuum from The Most Plastic to No Discernible Plastic, and even The Most Plastic category is a tiny drop in the bucket in our overall single-use plastic consumption. So with that grain of salt, I’ll tell you what I know.

The Floss Itself

As far as I can tell, floss itself comes in the following materials:

PTFE (Teflon) floss

This is the floss I use in my work, and I love it… for the statement it makes. And that’s about the nicest thing I can say about it. PTFE is one of the most persistent materials we’ve ever invented, lasting in the environment for thousands of years, easy. What makes it such an important industrial chemical - its resistance to corrosion, high heat, discoloration, and degradation - makes it an ‘interesting’ choice to use for 30 seconds cleaning gunk out from between your teeth. Maybe as logical as watering your garden with a firehose. I recently learned that PTFE is one of the many PFAS chemicals that the EU is proposing we ban entirely. One day, my floss embroideries will be irreplaceable…

How can you tell if the floss you use is PTFE? PTFE floss is flat and smooth, doesn’t shred, and fits in between the tightest teeth, which is why a lot of people use it. Most of the flosses that are marketed as “satin,” “glide,” “ribbon,” etc. are PTFE. If you’re unsure, you can usually go to the manufacturer’s website to check - they don’t really hide it, though you have to dig a bit. 

Nylon floss

The vast majority of other conventional flosses are made from nylon. Though not as heat and corrosion resistant as PTFE, it’s still plastic and comes with the suite of environmental pollution problems that follow. Importantly, it doesn’t appear to have the same connection to hazardous chemicals in the PFAS family, though, so it hasn’t drawn the EU’s (or any other country’s) ire in the way PFAS chemicals have. So if you’re a die-hard Reach Mint Waxed Floss person, you might find a way to justify your continued use of it. 

Bioplastics and Biodegradable Plastics

This is the category I’m fuzziest on. Plastics can be made from petroleum sources or plant sources, and they can be made to biodegrade (meaning they break down into their constituent parts and cease to be plastic anymore) or not. So when you buy “bamboo floss” (or coconut floss or bioplastic floss) it’s rarely clear whether it is biodegradable bamboo floss or just plastic floss made from bamboo. It sounds greener, but it’s hard to tell. Plus, just because plastic is biodegradable does not mean it will be subject to the very specific conditions it needs to actually biodegrade once it’s thrown out. It’s a problem with biodegradable plastics in general.

Did I just lose you? I know. It’s so annoyingly complex. And marketing is so infuriatingly opaque. So if you don’t want to get a PhD in dental floss variations (I’m awarding certificates to everyone who finishes this article, jk), I simply offer you this: do your best but recognize we are part of a larger system. Demand changes to the system - for transparency, for class bans on harmful chemicals, for smarter use of plastic, and then take a deep breath and enjoy this precious life and the floss you enjoy best.

Silk floss

The only type of floss I’ve discovered that is entirely plastic-free is silk. If you can make peace with the silk worms, this is your solution. I’ve seen them in cute refillable glass or aluminum dispensers, or my grocery store carries a brand in a cardboard dispenser

The Wax

Most flosses are waxed. This wax can be derived from petroleum sources and can also have PTFE in it. In general, you can assume conventional flosses are using either petroleum derived wax or PTFE wax. Who cares? Putting aside our previous discussions on the suspect nature of PFAS chemicals, depending on how you feel about sustaining markets for petroleum, you might choose to avoid petroleum-derived wax. Or not. Insert giant shrug here.

Many of the more “natural” brands (read: the brands that market to people who are at least trying to be greener) will advertise plant-based waxes such as caranuba or coconut waxes or other “natural” alternatives like beeswax. Many of what I would consider “middle of the road” flosses - Tom’s probably being the most widely available - are a combination of nylon floss with these “natural” waxes. If this is you, floss on, soldier.

The Packaging

In any discussion about reducing our plastic footprint, we really should be focused on packaging. In 2021, we (as a planet) produced 391 million metric tons of virgin plastic (increasing by ~4% per year), ~40% of which goes to single-use plastic packaging production. EVERY YEAR. I haven’t weighed the plastic packaging that houses the floss and sells the floss versus the weight of the floss we actually use, but my intuition says the packaging is heavier. So the last thing to consider when buying floss is how it’s packaged. Conventional flosses are always in a plastic dispenser and usually on a cardboard back with a plastic cover so it can be displayed nicely in the aisles. Companies like Tom’s remove the plastic display box and create a closed cardboard box that houses a (still) plastic dispenser for their nylon “naturally waxed” floss. Ok. Further down the line, you have the manufacturers that have found a way to ditch the plastic dispenser as well for an entirely cardboard, but still single-use container. And finally, there are the glass and aluminum refillable dispensers. Always a spectrum. But now you know!

Bottom line is, don’t stress too hard about the floss you use. If you have the bandwidth to make a better choice than you have been making, wonderful. Every reduction in plastic use counts. But if you find it overwhelming, perhaps your effort is better spent examining other habits of yours that consume way more plastic. I’m talking take-out coffee drinks, or, let’s be honest, take-out anything. 

In Conclusion, I Award You With Your Degree in Dental Floss Competency

If you’ve made it this far and are not either asleep or ready to clock me, I congratulate you and award you an official Degree of Dental Floss Competency. Continue as you were.

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