1001 Uses For Dental Floss #60- Neanderthal Kisses and Dental Plaque

Helene Rougier, anthropologist at California State University Northridge, in the United States, displays some of the 96 bones and three teeth from five Neanderthal individuals which were found in the Belgium Goyet cave. Credit: Emmanuel Dunand Getty Images

Neanderthals were amazing creatures. Much like us, and much not like us at all. And yet, archeologists have recently looked at hardened plaque, which is the same, I think, as what we know as calculus or tartar, the stuff your hygienist spends an hour scraping and vibrating off your teeth at your six-month visit to your dentist. The results are (for me, anyway) amazing.

The Neanderthals of El Sidrón Cave in northern Spain had a pretty hard time. Food was hard to come by, and they had to fight off predators, disease, and long, hard winters. By looking at the stuff stuck between their teeth in five fossil skulls, (some 50,000 years ago or more), it’s been found that they ate mushrooms, moss and pine nuts.

One individual may even have used plants and moulds to treat his diseases. Paleolithic medicine!

Laura Weyrich, a palaeomicrobiologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia co-led the study, and suggests that these findings “really paint a different picture, almost of their personalities, of really who they were.”

Christina Warinner, an archaeological geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, praises the team’s microbiome reconstructions. The mouths of Neanderthals seem to have been colonized by microbes rare in humans today.

Recent improvements in ancient DNA analysis, have allowed these trace sequences to be identified and have led to a bonanza of research into ancient plaque.

In a 2013 study, a team led by Alan Cooper at the University of Adelaide sequenced preserved plaque to show that major shifts in diet such as the large increase in starch because of settled farming some 10,000 years ago made for large changes in the human oral microbiome.

Weyrich’s team compared plaque DNA from Neanderthals from El Sidrón and from the Spy cave in Belgium. The analysis revealed that whereas Spy denizens seemed to consume woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, El Sidrón’s foraged for plants, although . Hervé Bocherens, a palaeobiologist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, believes that thee two groups ate meat. Both ate mushrooms.

Amazingly, the El Sidrón Neanderthals probably also used plants to self-medicate. DNA from poplar trees (parts of which contain salicyclic acid, historically used in aspirin), and Penicillium mould (the source of penicillin) turned up on one individual’s teeth. Weyrich suspects that they were trying to treat a visible tooth abscess and a stomach infection caused by the bacterium Enterocytozoon bieneusi. Maybe eating mouldy grain could have caused this too, but the idea that these creatures, long thought to be primitive hulking brutes, as self-medicating and familiar with pharmacological approaches to disease is fascinating.

A microbe called Methanobrevibacter oralis is found in the mouths of modern humans, but genetic analysis shows that it was there in ancient humans at the same time as in the mouths of Neanderthals. This suggests the archaebacterium was transmitted between them. Were they kissing, or simply sharing food? Whatever they were doing together, they were together, turning on its head ideas that they were separate and always fighting for dominance.

“If you’re swapping spit between species, there’s kissing going on, or at least food sharing,” says Weyrich, “which would suggest that these interactions were much friendlier and much more intimate than anybody ever possibly imagined.”
So many amazing advances in our study of these ancient beings, who were largely misunderstood in the past, really changes our ideas of whre we came from and how alike we are to what came before us.

The original article in Scientific American by Ewen Callaway can be found at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neandertal-tooth-plaque-hints-at-meals-mdash-and-kisses/.


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #59- Fashion Toothpastes

A little late for the end-of-year holidays, but I can’t always be up-to-date on everything dental. Now toothpaste has joined so many other products as worthy of a fashion article. In Vogue Magazine, an article of 8 toothpaste products deemed worthy of being considered as gifts (and why not throw in some floss) was in the December 20 issue, just in time for those last-minute head-scratchers trying to come up with the ultimate unusual and impressive article for the gift stocking. They come in a variety of flavours, including:

1. David’s Natural Toothpaste, touted as being fluoride-free (actually not a good thing, in my professional opinion) and sulphate-free (I don’t know what the value of this is, but I’m not a chemist or public health person.

2. Lebon Cinnamon-Mint flavour

3. Jarvis Jasmine Mint

4. Theodent Kids, which has a chocolate flavour

5. Couto Pasta Dentifrica

6. Acca Cappa

7. Boka Mint Natural Toothpaste

They all look fancy and flavourful, and may make you feel good about taking care of your teeth, so check them out. Not an endorsement, though, just thought this was interesting. I haven’t looked into the prices or availability, though.

So, brush your teeth every day and floss them too. Again, floss your teeth.
But like one of my dentistry teachers once told his patients, only floss the teeth you want to keep. I case you have favourites.

To see the original Vogue article, go to:


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #56- Is Flossing Really Useless?

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente recently wrote an article following up on the Associated Press’s dismissal of flossing as a useful adjunct to oral health, expressing, I guess, relief that finally she could ignore the advice she receives every time she goes to her dentist’s office. She seems to hate doing the flossing, and resents having an “expert” tell her what to do. Her article in the Globe and Mail, declaring the absolute uselessness of dental floss is, however, wrong on her part. What she says is a misreading of a misreading. The original article by the Associated Press claimed that flossing is useless, as evidenced by a lack of good scientific data supporting the practice, which simply means that a large enough double-blind study hasn’t been done, which I and the American Dental Association acknowledge. This is, however, mainly because the corporations who manufacture floss and toothbrushes and toothpaste and mouth rinse haven’t found it sufficiently important to finance such a study (no one else will because it’s not a matter of public health being threatened enough, like AIDS or Zika virus or Ebola do, which really, and rightly, scare people. Dental decay and gum disease, although very prevalent (dental caries affects more people in the world than any other infection), it doesn’t kill anyone (or hardly anyone, because it can, but rarely in the West), and their effects are slow and limited, for the most part, to the teeth, not the rest of the body. So who cares, right?

Luckily, there are journalists who are more thoughtful. Global News reporter Andrew Russell gives a much more balanced and nuanced picture of this subject.

It’s a little scary to see this issue turned into a controversy by people who dislike doing it, and so feel gratified, if not liberated, by what seems to be a reason for them to stop flossing. It’s more distressing, though, when those who shape public opinion in the news media misreport and misrepresent issues, and then pass them along to other reporters who, in a grotesque sort of broken telephone, blather on about issues which are then presented in a simplistic and distorted fashion to an audience who are unfamiliar with them and accept that whoever is doing the writing must be an “expert” on it. So the “experts” are deciding who the “experts” are, without really vetting the value of the information or disinformation they’re passing on. This doesn’t just apply to this small issue of flossing, but also to more important subjects which make the headlines of our newspapers and the ticker tape display on our news channels. Distressing.

Please continue to floss. It really is good for you.



1001 Uses For Dental Floss #55- The Story of Gulliver’s Floss

So, it seems that the Associated Press did a deep review of scientific papers studying flossing and found that, amazingly, FLOSSING IS USELESS! Sure, and Dewey won the presidency against Truman in the 1948 U.S. Presidential Election- they got that one right too. No one could be more surprised than me at this revelation, but sceptic that I am, I don’t believe it. In my heart (and experience) I know that flossing prevents both decay between teeth and gum disease, and I plan to go through all the articles cited investigating this. Give me a couple of months, though. There’s a lot to read.

While you’re waiting, though, here is another tall tale inspired by a comment by Chuck H., a Facebook friend of mine.

Many years ago, a man named Lemuel Gulliver travelled from one place to another, meeting all sorts of strange creatures. The best-known of these were the Liliputians, who appeared to be fully-formed humans, except they were very, very small. How small were they? Very, very small. Very, very, very, small. Minute. When Gulliver landed on Lilliput after a gale sank his ship, taking everyone but him to the bottom of the sea, he was exhausted from swimming, fighting the currents, and outpacing the sharks and other sea creatures bent on eating him. He fell asleep on the shore, and when he woke up later, he found himself surrounded by a horde of the tiny inhabitants of the island, who, being cautious about the possible danger from such a huge creature, had lashed him with rope, so that he couldn’t move a finger.

Gulliver, though, was, among many other things, a surgeon and dentist, and he mistook the ropes, which were pretty thin and fashioned from silk, for dental floss. Not having much else to do, Gulliver began to speak, describing his work and the terrible scourges he fought every day, dental decay and gum disease. Not being someone who surfed the net, which was not to be invented for several more centuries, he hadn’t read the Associated Press article on the futility of flossing, so he proceeded to preach on the value of the practice. Gulliver was such a good orator that the creatures of the island were soon convinced. By night, a few would sneak close to him and cut off a length or two of the silk lines and floss their teeth, and amazingly, within a few days they felt better, and had much better breath. This so impressed their friends that the practice spread across the island, and very soon, all of Lilliput had great oral hygiene. Because they used up the silk binding Gulliver, he was quickly able to free himself and soon took short walks across Lilliput. The tiny people of the island hailed Gulliver and wanted to make him their king. But Gulliver was a modest man. He didn’t want power. He just wanted to go forth to other lands, extolling the virtues of good oral hygiene habits far and wide. And this is why Jonathan Swift’s book about him is called Gulliver’s Travels, and not Gulliver’s Floss.

If you liked this story, go read the real Guliiver’s Travels, a satirical novel published in 1726 by Irishman Jonathan Swift, now available free online. It’s in the public domain. And continue to floss. It really does help. I’ve seen it happening.


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #54- Can Good Oral Hygiene Damage Your Body? Really?

Probably not.
Years ago, when I was a beginner dentist, I didn’t know much, but then a lot of others were in the same boat. At one time, the teeth were considered a focus of infection, a place which harboured bacteria just waiting to set forth and infect the rest of the body. Boy, did dentists feel maligned, something like weathermen who were blamed for every storm and cold font, tornado, and drought, just for being around.
There was then an orthodoxy surrounding dental treatment for patients who had various sorts of heart defects, such as damaged or defective heart valves, a history of heart valve replacement, a history of rheumatic fever, or other heart-related problems. All such individuals were given penicillin (or, if they were allergic to that, another antibiotic) for two days before treatment and then for a day after the procedure, because it was felt that bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans or Streptococcus viridans lodged in the gums and around teeth would get pushed into the blood and then travel to and colonize these damaged, sensitive surfaces of the heart. A few years later, the regimen (developed by the American Heart Foundation) got simpler and involved just a single dose of penicillin (or other as above) an hour before the dental treatment started.
More recently, realizing that people with these problems could seed their hearts with bacteria just by brushing (and flossing), it became clear that it was a fool’s errand to try to prevent these effects except where there were powerful reasons to try to do so: recent heart valve surgery (within the last year) or certain serious and complex developmental defects involving the heart, or a heart transplant. Unfortunately, it was not a good idea to have these patients on a continuous dose of antibiotics either. The free and easy way in which antibiotics were being used was becoming a danger in itself, because strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria were arising due to their overuse.
So, at the time, there was also a concern that certain artificial implants, such as latex tubes placed to drain excess fluid from the brain, or artificial hip joints, might offer internal surfaces that could be colonized by mouth bacteria, and antibiotics might be useful against this possibility too. And then antibiotics for these cases fell out of fashion,too.
That was then. Here, now, we’re up against the same situation again. Recently, a woman with an artificial knee joint arrived in hospital with a painful infection in that site. Puzzled doctors opened up the knee and discovered that the infection was by another type of bacteria, this time Streptococcus gordonii, commonly found in the mouth, and decided that because the woman had recently started vigorous flossing, that must have pushed them into the blood, and the infection of the knee followed.

Of course it did. Obviously.

Same old story, blaming the teeth again.To which I say, maybe. And if history is any sort of guide any more, probably not.

Keep flossing.


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #53- A Squirrel with a Sweet Tooth

Another baby tooth-pulling story, as reported on CBC News (it wasn’t even a slow news day- the Brexit surprise just happened): A Montreal dad is in it for the big time. After entering the fray with the use of a drone to pull his daughter’s tooth last summer, 6-year-old Mila Freiheit’s father thought that the next step up would be to use a live animal to do the job. Luckily, not anything large and dangerous like a pitbull or a racehorse, just a squirrel with a sweet tooth. This girl’s dad attached the tooth via a length of floss to a granola bar. The squirrel gave a tug and off went the tooth, so loose that the floss just popped it out. He filmed it all with 3 cameras. And the squirrel didn’t have rabies.

What next? Mila still has a bunch of baby teeth that will be loosening up over the next 5 or 6 years, so this could really escalate. The ultimate, I think, would be to lure aliens to use their UFO to do the job. Failing that, (I don’t believe in aliens- sorry, Mulder and Scully) maybe a police car racing off to fight crime, or an elevator, with the little girl in it and the floss hanging out and attached to some object outside it, like a potted plant). How about using a float at the gay parade? Or maybe the dad can attach the tooth to Scotland as it tears itself away from England one of these days.

I have news for the dad, though. It’s illegal to feed squirrels in a park in Westmount. There’s a $50 fine for doing that. Will Mr. Freiheit be charged? Stay tuned. I hope the drone flight last year was legal.

Flossing is still legal though. Squirrels do it, sort of. So you keep doing it too.




1001 Uses For Dental Floss # 52- Greek Myths


The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (and Dental Floss)

You may have heard of the Minotaur, a half-man, half bull creature kept in the Labyrinth by Minos, the King of Crete. According to Greek myth, the Labyrinth was an artificial cave with winding, intersecting tunnels and blind ends so that no one who went in could ever unravel its secret pathways and escape, built by the engineer Daedalus (whose son, Icarus, you may also remember, flew too near the sun with waxed wings Daedalus had designed.)

According to this legend, Minos’s wife, Queen Pasiphae, who came from the city of Athens, slept with a bull (there’s a lot of bull in this tale) who was sent to her by Zeus, the top God of ancient Greek mythology. After this, Minos’ son went to Athens to take part in the Panathenaic Games (something like the Olympics) and was killed by the very bull that had impregnated Minos’ wife. Understandably pretty angry, but mindful that Zeus was not a god to be trifled with, Minos captured the Minotaur (his stepson) but didn’t have it killed.

Instead he placed the bull-man in the labyrinth. From Athens, Minos every year demanded seven young men and women from that city as a punishment, and also to avoid a plague (great excuse) and confined them to the labyrinth, where the Minotaur found them and ate them. Pretty gruesome story, but that’s the type the ancient Greeks loved to tell to their children.
Minotaur, half man – half bull
Anyway, long story short, Theseus in the third year decided to take on the Minotaur by offering himself up. After entering the cave, and using dental floss given to him by Ariadne, daughter of Minos, who had fallen for him and was a dental hygienist by trade, he laid down a trail that he could follow out later. So, kids, believe it or not, Theseus confronted the Minotaur and killed him and escaped from the labyrinth by following the trail of floss. That’s not where the story ends, but you’ll have to look the rest up.

It’s complicated.


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #51- Floss In Space

Space dentistry, the final frontier. No, not really, fellow Trekkies, but studies on dentistry in the space environment have already begun.

Indian dentist Balwant Rai grew up fascinated by space and the stars. He watched the sky at night (“Balwant, time for bed! Stopping staring up into the sky. It’ll make your neck stiff!” his mother would chastise him. (I’m making this up, actually paraphrasing my own mother, and hope he takes all this in good humour.) Once in bed, he dreamt about merging the studies of dentistry and the universe into one discipline: aeronautic dentistry, which would deal with dental care during space travel.


From the time he was knee-high to an alien grasshopper, Dr. Rai wanted to be an astronaut, and once he became a dentist he began to study the effects of space on the oral cavity (a fancy term we dentists use to say “mouth”) Simulating the environment of space, he conducted experiments in microgravity and in conditions like those on Mars. He designed the first college course on space dentistry in 2006.

Under these conditions, he found that humans would experience swelling of the face, changes in their sense of taste, abnormal facial expressions (whatever that means), and tooth pain, dry mouth, gum disease, tooth decay, stones in ducts of the salivary glands,precancer and cancer of the mouth, and fractures of the bones of the upper and lower jaws. Pretty scary, really.

Anyone willing to sign up for that one way mission to Mars set for about 2030? Imagine a toothache all the way to Mars.

According to Dr. Rai, aeronautic dentistry (shouldn’t it be called astronautic dentistry?) is looking for answers the following questions:

How to manage if an astronaut has an abscess, a broken tooth, or a jaw fracture during a mission.

Should one or more of the staff (presumably one with medical training) on board a space vessel have special training in providing dental treatment, along with other medical activities,

Should standardized techniques be specially modified for the space environment? What dental equipment would have to be included in a space mission? Would laser techniques or other technologies be more appropriate for space? What about taking xrays- how to keep everything steady? For example, modern dental treatment requires the use of a fine water spray to remove debris and keep the operative area clean.A cloud of bacteria-laden water droplets would have to be controlled so that it doesn’t contaminate surfaces and other humans or get into sensitive electronic equipment. The same precautions might also apply to brushing and flossing.

Should all space travellers have to have a thorough dental exam and comprehensive dental care before being allowed to come on board a spaceship?

How an astronaut can maintain proper oral hygiene during extraterrestrial missions, including the mission to Mars. How would they rinse, or spit? What could be done if they run out of dental floss on the way to Jupiter?

What are the effects of extraterrestrial environments (increased radiation, a lack of gravity, restrictions on certain foods, stomach upset) on the oral cavity?

And what about those weird alien teeth we always see in science fiction movies, like “Alien”? Whose going to look after them?

One last thought: if Dr. Leonard McCoy of the original Star Trek series was nicknamed “Bones”. What should Dr. Rai be called?

Rai B, Kaur J (2011) The history and importance of aeronautic dentistry. J Oral Sci 53(2):143-6

Balwant Rai is a leading expert in aeronautic and space dentistry. He developed the first college course in aeronautic dentistry in 2006, and has since conducted several experiments under microgravity conditions. His studies mainly focus on the effects of microgravity on the human body. Balwant has published many articles on aeronautic dentistry, and he was selected for crew 78 in the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) as health and safety officer and crew 100B as commander, emergency physician and biomedical scientist. Contact him at <raibalwant29@rediffmail.com>.


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #50- Ancient Weeds Prevented Tooth Decay

By looking at the remains of a prehistoric people living in what is now Sudan, scientists have found bits of a particularly bitter-tasting weed inside the dental calculus (hard deposits) sticking to their teeth. This plant is known to inhibit the growth of Streptoccus mutans, a bacterium which causes tooth decay in humans, but is high in carbohydrates, so it would be a good energy source and would have caused tooth decay if not for its antibacterial properties, although for us moderns, its bitter taste is unlikely to make it a big hit in the toothpaste aisle of your favourite drug store. The cavity rate in the ancients who chewed this plant was surprisingly low (around 1%), while at other locations where this plant wasn’t eaten the rate of tooth decay was much higher – 5%.

So, here’s evidence that it was possible for ancients to reduce their rates of decay by eating the right foods, but unfortunately this wouldn’t work for us – we eat much more sugar and our tolerance for unpalatable food is pretty low. We have to rely on watching our sugar intake, and on preventing decay by brushing and flossing, but if we get a cavity, we have something these ancients didn’t – at least there’s no archeological evidence so far – dentists.

ancient-dental-hygiene-01_81700_990x742 http://t.co/haUO3upSHc


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #49- A $500,000,000 Lawsuit

In 2012, a number of county jail inmates filed a $500 million lawsuit against Westchester County in New York State, after being denied dental floss, claiming that the result was dental decay and gum disease. There have been reports that prisoners escaped using ropes braided out of dental floss (yes, it’s really happened, and many times. See 1001 Uses #1 for the report. There have also been stories of prisoners using the floss to strangle each other, to saw through jail cell bars, with tooth paste as the abrasive that would do the job (questionable, really, and it would probably take years of sawing if this could really work), and the floss container as well as tooth brushes can be modified for use as a weapon. Some inmates are very creative, and I suppose they’ve got a lot of time on their hands to think these things up and then do them. Jail officials cite these security issues, saying there’s more at stake than oral hygiene.

I haven’t seen any news about how this lawsuit worked out. So far, as far as I know, there’s no constitutional amendment that mandates the right to bear floss. All the paperwork probably gave these convicts a chance to get the guards with papercuts, though, or maybe escape on a giant taped-together paper airplane.