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Published: 12 May 2021

How to make flossing a habit that you stick to

Author: Dr Gemma Wheeler, BDS (Leave a comment)
How to make flossing a habit that you stick to 1

The Australian Dental Association (ADA) recommends interdental cleaning at least once a day.

By interdental cleaning, I mean flossing, using interdental brushes, or using a water flosser. For the sake of this article, I will call it flossing, but it could be using any form of interdental cleaning.

Floss should be used in addition to toothbrushing, to fully remove plaque. Removing plaque will protect you against gum disease and tooth decay. Flossing also has some surprising benefits to your general health.

So how do you start flossing, and how can you make the routine into a habit?

In this post I run through some general advice on habit forming and getting started with flossing, and then give my personal advice as a dentist on turning flossing into a habit you stick to.

To see our full range of content on flossing, see our how to floss hub page.

A quick guide to flossing 

Flossing can be a bit of an overwhelming topic if this is something you don’t already do.

If you don’t know where to start, have a little look at our video below for an overall introduction to flossing.

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What to do if you are flossing for the first time

You really need to want to floss if it is going to become a habit. In which case I recommend you read all about the benefits of flossing. And learn about what can happen if you aren’t flossing. 

Flossing is difficult, and aside from bleeding stopping, you are unlikely to see the benefits for a long time. You are playing the long game - years or even decades, and investing in your future. But the lack of a quick reward will make this a difficult habit.

If you really know why dental professionals recommend flossing, then you will be more inclined to do it.

First things first:

  1. Pick the right tool for the job. Choose the right interdental cleaning tool for you.
  2. Don’t expect to be perfect the first time. Take time to learn the right technique before you try flossing for the first time. But don’t worry if you can’t do it at first. You will find flossing becomes easier with practice. Practice makes perfect!
  3. Expect your gums to bleed. And don’t be put off by it. Know that any discomfort you feel when flossing is only temporary. Any bleeding or soreness in your gums will also improve as you continue to regularly floss.
  4. Go for it! Overall, there is little damage you can do when flossing. Just give it a go, and you will likely find it so much easier than you imagine.

How to form a habit

When thinking about health behaviour, the most common theoretical model is the COM-B model. Yes, there is science behind the discussions we have with you. And you can use this science to help you make or break a habit. 

COM-B refers to:

  • Capability: having the skills to perform a behaviour. This means you need the physical skills, so learn the right technique. Also pick the right tool for you, one that is easy for you to use. Prepare yourself before you try flossing so that you are ready to succeed! Ask your dentist or dental hygienist to teach you if you need some extra help.
  • Opportunity: having the right environment to perform a behaviour. This is as simple as buying the floss (or interdental brushes). Also, having the tools available to you. Some people prefer to keep floss available throughout the day to increase your opportunity to floss. To really develop a habit, you need to look at flossing in the same time and place every day. For example, keeping your floss next to your toothbrush. And keeping these out by a sink. 
  • Motivation: the thoughts and processes behind a behaviour. You might not be aware of all the things stopping you or helping you to form a new habit. But you really need to understand why this new habit can help you to motivate yourself to change. This will include having discussions with your dentist or hygienist.

Learning a new skill is a challenge, but the top tops that are coming should help.

Tips from a dentist to form a flossing habit

brushing teeth with electric toothbrush

Get toothbrushing right first

For most people if you try to start everything at once, it can be an information overload. So start with brushing twice a day, because this is more important than flossing. 

Most importantly, make sure you are brushing at some time after your last meal and before you go to bed. This is the most important time of day to brush, and is ideally when you would floss too.

When you have a good tooth brushing habit, you can easily add flossing into that routine. 

See our post on how to brush your teeth properly for more advice on toothbrushing technique.

Pick a trigger

One of the best ways to form a new habit is to tie it to a trigger (or cue). The most commonly used one is toothbrushing, which is why I recommend getting your tooth brushing routine sorted first. 

The gold standard for flossing is before you brush your teeth, before you go to bed.

But there isn’t much evidence to say this is a lot better than any other time. Doing it, even at a different time, is better than not doing it at all.

You need to pick a time in your routine that works for you. 

This time will also depend on the tools you use. But some tips I have picked up:

  • Floss in the shower. Whether it’s interdental brushes, floss, or a water flosser, doing it in the shower is easier. You are less concerned about making a mess. You are undisturbed by other people. And who doesn’t love an excuse to stay in a warm shower a little longer?! 
  • Floss in the morning. At the end of the day, you are normally tired and want to skip straight to bed. Start your day right with flossing and you could develop a habit for life.
  • Use interdental brushes whilst sat at your desk. Ok, this might not be for everyone. And might gross out some coworkers. But it could also be a perfect opportunity for you if you are short of time otherwise.

Put your floss in a visible place

Bestselling Author James Clear (Atomic Habits), writes about this on his website. He calls it the “Visibility Method”. Your environment is key to making a new habit (or breaking an old one). That is, what you can see, smell, hear, feel will all impact the chances of you forming your new habit. 

When it comes to flossing, keep your tools visible. I recommend keeping them next to your toothbrush on a shelf or next to the sink. This keeps them visible each time you go to brush your teeth.

Keep spares everywhere

It is easy to forget to floss when you first start out. Having spares increases your opportunity to floss.

Keep spare brushes or small amounts of floss in convenient places such as your car, office desk, handbag, or second bathroom. That way if you get the urge, you can go for it. The visible reminders will also help.

Use a floss holder

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You need to make flossing as easy as possible if you want to make it a habit.

Using a floss holder has been proven to help patients establish a long-term flossing habit. But really, you just need to find the tool that is easiest for you to use. There is a lot of choice out there. The easier you make it, the more likely you are to stick to it!

See our best flossing tools post for some recommendations on which to go for.

Set reminders

Set a reminder on your phone to floss.

My recommendation would be to put it in the evening, around the time you would expect to brush your teeth. Although there is some debate about the best time to floss, the general consensus seems to be before you brush your teeth, before you go to bed. 

Set yourself a goal

Set a flossing goal. Setting a goal gives you something to work up to, even if you aren’t ready to commit to a full regime just yet. 

It helps to be specific. Set a goal that includes when, where, and how you will floss. For example “I will floss in the bathroom before brushing my teeth before bedtime”. The when, where and how can all be changed depending on your lifestyle.

Start off small

There are a few different ways to approach flossing as a new habit.

Flossing every day from day one will develop a habit more quickly. But this can be daunting. It will also make you feel like you have failed if you miss one day. It is easy to become demotivated if you feel like you aren’t succeeding. And missing one day is not failing.

Another option is that you don’t go straight for flossing every day. Consider it your end goal. Break it down into flossing just twice a week to begin with and build up to doing it every day. Making small changes is easier to achieve than big changes. In my experience, people are more likely to succeed long term if they don’t put too much pressure on themselves initially.

Essentially, it depends on your personality and whether you are an all-or-nothing kind of person.

Record it each time you floss

Make a note of when you floss to see the progress you are making.

This could be a physical chart in the bathroom that you mark off with a pen, or even sticker. Or perhaps make a note on a calendar on your phone. The choice is yours. 

By recording your process you will get a little pang of joy when you see that habit developing.

Take home messages

You should see your new habit as a healthy alternative to what you are currently doing. With flossing, know that doing some sort of interdental cleaning will improve your oral hygiene and reduce the risk of gum disease and tooth decay. The alternative is no interdental cleaning, with possible need for dental treatment.

Ultimately you need to make an action as easy as possible if you want it to become a habit. Fitting it into your existing routine and using the right tools will help make flossing easier. This can be a bit of trial and error for finding the right flossing tool, but have a think about the different options available to you.

Make sure you have the minimum number of steps to perform the task to increase the chances of you doing it. Don’t let things get in the way. For example, keep the tools you need on the side rather than in a draw!

This can be applied to making any new habit, but continue reading to see my advice specific to making flossing a habit.

Author: Dr Gemma Wheeler, BDS

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