You’re flossing your teeth, just like you do every day, when you feel a familiar sensation: gum tenderness. Sure enough, you spit into the sink and see a little blood.

Ugh. On top of cutting off the circulation in your fingers, making you squeeze your fists into your mouth, and doubling the time it takes to care for your teeth, flossing also has the gall to make you bleed! Why does something that’s meant to help us often end up hurting us?

Flossing is a misunderstood skill that requires more intricacy to be effective than people realize. When you do it right, you deep clean your teeth in a way that only flossing can achieve. By overcoming your flossing obstacles, understanding the consequences of not flossing, and following expert tips, you’ll keep your mouth happy and even come to look forward to flossing!

Reasons people don’t floss their teeth and how to overcome them

It’s tricky to do right, and it may even be uncomfortable at first. And by “uncomfortable,” we mean painful! It’s hard to reach your back teeth and it’s hard to get the floss in between crowded teeth. This and other factors lead to flossing that is too vigorous and may hurt the gums, no matter how frequently you floss. So be persistent and gentle.

Some people say they don’t have the time, but we say you do! We recommend flossing while you’re watching TV–easy! Some people say they use mouthwash instead of flossing. But mouthwash is not a suitable substitute.

“With mouthwash, you think you’re removing all the debris from between the teeth,” says Sangeeta Gajendra, DDS, “but plaque, for instance, really sticks on the tooth’s surface and only mechanically removing it with the floss will help. You literally, mechanically, have to do it. That’s why you use a toothbrush. And that’s why you have to floss.”

But still, is it worth it?

Even if you overcome all these obstacles–by being gentle, flossing while you’re watching TV, and realizing that flossing helps get all the gunk from between your teeth–it can still be uncomfortable and hard to turn into a habit. Is it worth overcoming these things to make flossing part of your routine?

We say it is.

The CDC reported that over 47 percent of adults 30 and older have a periodontal disease. That’s huge! And if that doesn’t scare you, just look up images of periodontal disease. You don’t want to have gum disease–once your gums recede, they’re gone forever. Flossing is one of the tools you can use to prevent periodontal disease. In other words, flossing is how you can keep your teeth and your gums where they belong.

An encouraging study found that when professionals flossed school children’s teeth every school day for two years, there was a 40 percent reductionin the risk of cavities. Flossing works! You just have to do it right.

How to do it right

Here are some tips for comfortable and effective flossing.

  1. Floss the sides of both teeth. “If you just slide the floss down, and then pull it up, you are only getting 50% of the job done.” Move the floss down on the side of one tooth and glide it up on the side of the neighboring tooth. That way, you’re preventing cavities on both teeth. Then repeat this process for all of your teeth, using the floss to gently scrape all 56 to 64 tooth-sides in your mouth.
  2. Be gentle with your gums. Don’t attack your gums with the floss. You do more harm than good when you’re too vigorous. If you have crowding, saw the floss back and forth in the tight spot between teeth until it’s easy to move the floss down rather than yanking it down between your tightly spaced teeth.
  3. Apply pressure to the tooth surface. Make sure you’re actually scraping away the plaque between your teeth by applying pressure to the sides of each tooth.
  4. Floss every day. If you only whip out the floss after you’ve eaten popcorn, you’re missing the point. Flossing isn’t just about removing obvious bits of food. It’s about keeping the invisible plaque from turning into nasty tartar.
  5. Use 18 inches of floss and use fresh sections as you go. “Wrap most around the middle finger of one hand, the rest around your other middle finger.” Then use fresh sections so you’re not spreading bacteria from one part of your mouth to another.
  6. Use a floss pick to help you get in the habit. Dentists have mixed opinions about the effectiveness of floss picks. But if you’re a parent helping care for a young child or just someone who can’t get into the habit of flossing, floss picks are a great way to transition to traditional flossing. They’re convenient, have a great reach, and can be used with one hand.

Flossing is a crucial part of a healthy oral care routine. When you overcome your flossing obstacles, understand the consequences of not flossing, and follow expert tips, flossing will become a habit you’re happy to keep up.