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There’s a few things in life that you completely dread, and when it happens, you know you won’t be able to stop thinking about it until it’s gone. For me, that’s getting food stuck between my teeth. It’ll usually happen at that moment, on a trip, when I’m away from my beautiful home bathroom, and I’m left stranded with a piece of meat or popcorn kernel that my tongue won’t stop playing with. Oh the agony! Here’s what your friends might say to do, and what your dentist will say, and why:

What Friends might say to do:

A recent survey* of 1,005 adults asked Americans how they “remove that piece of food stuck between their teeth”. They found that 61% will use their fingernails, 40% will fold paper, 21% will use a knife or fork, 14% will search for a safety pin, and 7% will use strands of hair. A second survey reports that people have used twigs, matchbooks, toenails, wires, screwdrivers and pocket knives… yikes! Even though these people may have gotten out the food, 42% reported pain directly from using these obscure objects.

What’s the big deal?

One of the biggest concerns for using these foreign objects is not only the damage that you can do to your gums, but the spaces you can create by forcing these things between your teeth, called open contacts. Teeth should be lightly touching their neighbors. When they do, floss should snap through this space, also known as a closed contact. When foreign objects are wedged in-between teeth, to get food out, these contacts spread, and over time, become open contacts.

One way to measure an open contact, is if one piece paper (0.05mm) fits between two teeth. That’s what you don’t want, since food will get stuck in an open contact. Thin human hair is between 0.04-0.06mm, with thick hair being 0.08-.1mm thick. And, an average toothpick is 2mm thick. So, anything .05mm or bigger will separate your teeth and cause gaps

How do you safely remove food without damaging your gums or moving your teeth?

You’ll want to use something that can easily slip past two teeth sitting closer than 0.05mm apart. Here are some options:

1. Salt water rinses or antiseptic mouthwash (alcohol or alcohol free) definitely can do the job, but often the power created from swishing is not enough for those stubborn pieces of food.

2. Waterpiks and water flossers are a great choice too, having enough power to dislodge any free-floating piece of food.

3. Using a toothbrush can create a physical removal of debris, but the bristles can’t reach in-between teeth very well.

4. An interproximal brush aka sulcabrush or end-tuft brush is like a toothbrush, but is a small point of bristles. This has the physical features of a toothbrush, but in a more compact design, made for those in-between spaces.

5. Dental toothpicks aka stimudents, plastic toothpick, the toothpick end of a flosspick, interproximal brushes or proxabrushes are the best for getting the embrasure space (the space just under or above the contact point of two teeth). They are not designed for the contact point, since they are often thicker than a piece of paper. Still, with a curved thin end of a dental toothpick, you can maneuver the stubborn food out.

6. Flossing with either floss, or a floss pick is the gold standard. The fibers are often waxed to slip between those tight contacts, and get to the in-between space. Flossing creates a physical removal of debris and, if used right, can clean debris from even underneath the gum line.

Dr.Topher - Chaffin Dental Care - Dentist Spokane Washington

For more information, contact the author, Dr. Topher Chaffin. He’s a family dentist at Chaffin Dental Care, in Spokane, Washington

*Statistics were pulled from this ADA article

  1. BlahBlah says:

    I’ve done all these. Well not the gross or dangerous, stupid ones & yet I STILL have something stuck! GRRRR

  2. gilbert says:

    yah salty water can do

  3. Kevinmit says:

    Don’t confuse a clot with food. Clots in the gums may appear gray and fibrous, like food particles. Cleaning too vigorously in this case may remove the clot and cause further complications.

  4. james b vogelsong says:

    is the only way to stop getting food caught in my lower side mollers–doing a crown etc is their a cheaper way

    • Topher Chaffin says:

      James, without specifics, it’s difficult to give a definitive answer. To sum up your options and get the contact space tighter (preventing food from getting stuck between your teeth) you have to either move the teeth closer together, or put something on the teeth. To move the teeth closer, this would be some form of braces. To put something on the teeth, you could have a composite/amalgam filling placed or have porcelain placed (crown/veneer/onlay/inlay). Hope this helps!

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