You floss regularly (we hope!) to protect not just your teeth but the health of your whole body. However, once you learn about the toxic chemicals that are in some brands of dental floss, you may want to make one change in your healthy habit. We don’t mean give up flossing!
The toxic chemicals we’re talking about are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs for short. These chemicals have been linked to many serious health conditions, such as thyroid disease, high cholesterol and kidney and testicular cancer. Even worse, since these synthetic chemicals are everywhere—including nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, cosmetics and food packaging—nearly all Americans have them in their bodies.
Researchers at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, and the Public Health Institute in Oakland, California, conducted a study to see how use of products known to contain PFASs affects body levels of the chemicals. They asked 178 middle-aged women about certain lifestyle habits (cooking with nonstick pans, eating prepared foods from cardboard containers, eating microwave popcorn, eating seafood, having stain-resistant carpeting or furniture and using Oral-B Glide dental floss). The researchers also measured the women’s blood levels of PFASs.
Results: Women who flossed with Oral-B Glide floss had higher levels of a PFAS chemical (in particular, one called PFHxS). Other lifestyle behaviors, such as having stain-resistant carpet and/or furniture, also were linked to higher blood levels of PFASs, as was living in a city with a PFAS-contaminated drinking water supply.
Given how widespread PFASs are, it’s hard to completely avoid them. But it’s important to take whatever steps you can to at least reduce exposure. Here are some suggestions…
Change your floss. Avoid brands that contain PTFE (a PFAS chemical) or its brand-name Teflon, such as Oral-B Glide and Colgate Total, as well as products that advertise as “Compare to Oral-B Glide.” Instead, choose floss made of nylon or silk and either uncoated or coated in a natural wax. Also check for PTFE in beauty-care products and makeup, such as foundation, mascara and face creams.
Get healthier in the kitchen. Takeout containers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and other grease-repellent packaging can contain PFASs. Stick with fresh, whole foods rather than prepared or takeout. Pop plain popcorn in an air popper or over the stove—just don’t use a nonstick pan. Be wary even of nonstick brands that say they are free of PFOS or PFOA, two of the best-known PFAS chemicals, because manufacturers may have replaced them with another PFAS to retain the Teflon-like qualities. Better: Enamel, ceramic, cast iron or stainless steel cookware.
Switch out furnishings when you can. Of course, it’s easier to replace your floss and cookware than your carpets and couch. But when it does come time to get something new, steer clear of stain-resistant carpeting and furniture. While you’re not eating off your floor or furniture, the chemicals get into the air and dust where they touch your skin and you breathe them in.
Check your local water supply. Areas close to firefighting training centers (including military bases), landfills, plants that manufacture PFAS products and airports have a higher likelihood of being contaminated. Check to see if your water supply has been tested for PFASs on the Environmental Working Group’s database, or look at its PFAS contamination map. If it turns out that PFASs are a concern, a solid carbon block filter, either attached to the water pipe under your kitchen sink or to the water supply for your whole house, can remove some of the longer-chain, bigger PFAS molecules, although short-chain PFAS molecules may still pass through.
Finally, there is currently little oversight on how PFASs are used or regulated. If you’re worried, call your state and federal representatives to see how that can be changed.