The History of Dental Floss

The History of Dental Floss

When you reach for your dental floss each day (hopefully you are reaching for it every day!), you probably don’t think twice about its origins. You likely have no idea how it came to be, but you are about to find out. Dental floss has an interesting history and has had many revisions and improvements since its inception.


Babylonians dating back 3500 BC are believed to have used “chew sticks” to clean in and around their teeth. These small handheld sticks had frayed ends that were inserted in between teeth to remove debri. These sticks have also been found in Egyptian tombs from 3000 BC.

Sassafras, dogwood, olive, walnut, apple, pear, bamboo, fig, hazelnut, orange, lime, and birch trees are some of the more commonly known trees that are believed to have been used for chew sticks. In Africa and India, the Salvadora Persica tree was and is still currently being used to clean teeth with. In fact, in 1986, the World Health Organization actually recommended using these chewing sticks, also known as miswaks, for those in developing areas who may be without a modern toothbrush.

According to the Huffington Post, later in 1600 BC, the Chinese began selecting twigs from aromatic trees for their chewing sticks in order to freshen their breath as they cleaned their teeth.


The next material we see being used for flossing is horse hair. Historically, horse hair has had many household uses throughout the decades, from violin bows to textiles to fishing line. So it is makes sense that our predecessors used horsehair to clean their teeth as well.

Horsehair also makes an appearance in the history of the toothbrush. Documentation from 1223 describes how monks used a horsetail hair brush to clean their teeth. Boar hairs were also used during this time.


Using silk as dental floss is the first place where we start to see more substantial documentation of the practice. One of the most prolific pioneers of dental care history, Levi Spear Parmly, is believed to be the first person to suggest using waxed silk thread to clean in between teeth.

In 1819, the revered dentist published a book titled “A Practical Guide To The Management of Teeth” that explained the origins of dental caries along with how to cure and prevent them.

In the book, Parmly is the first person to state that if teeth and gums are regularly cleaned, no decay can take place. While he may have been oversimplifying things, as many factors contribute to decay, he was definitely onto something. He also explained that every person needs three things to take care of their teeth: a toothbrush, a paste/powder for cleaning their teeth and some sort of flossing tool. These tools are still crucial today.

Parmly’s book was before it’s time. In the time period it was released, people just accepted the fact that their teeth were going to get cavities and fall out — it was a fact of life. It wasn’t until later with more research and advancements in dentistry did the public started to realize they had the power to preserve their teeth.

According to American Heritage’s Innovation & Technology magazine, one of the things that is so neat about Dr. Parmly was that while he was born into a family of wealthy dentists in New York, he moved to New Orleans and spent his time helping educating and helping lower-income individuals take care of their teeth.


While the informed and wealthier members of society were beginning to floss regularly in the 1800s, it wasn’t until the end of the century that it became a widespread practice.

One of the things that helped this come about was the mass-production of unwaxed silk floss. In 1874 a patent was issued to Asahel M. Shurtleff. In 1882, Shurtleff’s Massachusetts-based company, Codman & Shurtleff, took the product to the market.

Later, Johnson & Johnson bought Codman and Shurtleff and continued selling floss.

When silk became harder to come by due to World War II, the use of nylon in floss begins. Nylon was a great material for floss because it was inexpensive and much stronger than silk. It is still widely used today!

In the early 1900s, another important figure in the history of flossing emerges, Dr. Charles Bass. He studied the microbiological flora in the mouth and how it plays into overall oral health. He found evidence that supported some of his predecessor Levi Parmly’s original ideas about the connection between flossing and tooth decay. He also helped pioneer the use of nylon floss and taught practitioners and patients how to properly floss.


Now that dental floss is a household staple, the dental supply industry has given us an endless amount of floss options to choose from.

For example, you can opt for waxed or unwaxed. Waxed varieties tend to slide over teeth more smoothly, while unwaxed can be better for those with dexterity issues.

You can also have a special flavor in your floss, from peppermint to cinnamon. Extra wide floss called dental tape is also available for those with larger gaps or spaces between their teeth.

There are also updated versions of ancient chew sticks. Today’s chew stick is a flossing pick and they make flossing super convenient. Different iterations of floss picks appear as early as 1888 and continued to improve through 1970s when single-handled and disposable floss picks appear.

No matter what type of floss you prefer, it is important to keep up on the habit to keep your smile healthy and beautiful.

Share This:


Speak Your Mind