Flossing should be an essential part of our dental routine to help keep our teeth clean, our mouths fresh and our gums healthy.
“The majority of tooth decay starts in the gaps between the teeth,” according to Professor Quintus van Tonder, a leading dentist at Church Street Dental Practice, “which is why interdental cleaning is so important.”
Indeed, as well as helping to stop plaque build up, flossing can also help dislodge trapped food that might be difficult to remove through brushing alone.
But while traditional dental floss is cheap and readily accessible, it can also be difficult to use correctly and can contribute to plastic waste. And for those with braces and certain other dental work, dental floss can be more of a hindrance than a help. This is where water flossers come in.
Similar to the devices that you’ll have seen dentists use, water flossers use jets of water to clean your teeth. You direct the nozzle at the spaces between your teeth – always over the sink as it can get very messy – and then switch it on. The water will then wash the spots you can’t reach with your toothbrush and dislodge any food.
Some models also promise a gentle massage feature that’s designed to keep your gums healthy, while others will allow you to use it with mouthwash as well as water.
Professor van Tonder recommends using water flossers alongside interdental brushes, especially for patients “with implants, hard to reach teeth or ones with chronic periodontitis (gum disease)”.
We tested some of the leading water flossers on the market, each after regular brushing rather than before. We then followed up with traditional dental floss to check whether they really worked – spoiler, to our surprise they did!These are our favourites.
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Waterpik ultra plus WP-150 water flosser
Waterpik is the market-leading brand for water flossers, and this countertop device with 10 pressure options is perfect for families. The ultra plus comes with a solid base topped with a removable 651ml reservoir that holds enough water or mouthwash for 90 seconds of cleaning. The water tank feeds into a small wand that you can attach different tips to and basically use like a toothbrush.
There are also six different interchangeable tips – classic jet (nozzle), tongue cleaner, orthodontic, pik pocket (for periodontal pockets), plaque seeker and toothbrush. Finally, the lid for the reservoir doubles as storage box for the tips. The whole set up means a few different people can use the same machine with ease, and you don’t have to refill the water as regularly.
The ultra plus uses mains electricity via the shaver sockets so there’s no need to charge it before use. After filling the reservoir with warm water (otherwise it will feel very uncomfortable, especially for those with sensitive teeth) and drying both your hands and the device, you’re ready to plug in and use.
With the pressure set at the lowest level, you switch the machine on at the base, and this starts pumping water to the wand. You place the tip perpendicular against your gum line, over the sink, and then toggle the second switch on the wand to release the water. Then it’s simply a case of moving it along the gum line and allowing the water to do its job, adjusting the pressure up using the dial on the base if needed.
We found the machine quite awkward to use at first. The wand is attached to the machine via the coiled tube that feeds it water, which can at times catch when in use. Once we got into a routine though, the benefits were apparent from the debris left in the sink – there was nothing for our traditional dental floss to pick up.
The classic jet was our favourite tip for general use while the orthodontic tip was great for gentle cleaning of fixed retainers, and we imagine for braces too. But the toothbrush tip was actually quite disappointing, as it didn’t feel sturdy enough to be used for day to day brushing. Because the machine is so powerful, it can also be quite loud. Be aware too that you’ll need a flat base to set the machine on in the bathroom that’s fairly near the sink, as well as a shaver socket.
Panasonic EW1511 rechargeable oral irrigator with ultrasonic technology
The Panasonic EW1511 is a fairly compact cordless device with five different pressure settings, controlled via a button on the front. Its major coup over other cordless competitors is that it charges via a wall-mountable charging station – using the shaver socket – in just an hour, so there’s no hanging around. It can then be used for up to 10 minutes once fully powered up – you only need it on for about a minute for a full clean. At 200ml, the reservoir is a decent size too and has enough capacity for up to 60 seconds of use.
Unlike many of the other water flossers, the Panasonic EW1511 only comes with two tips, both identical in design. But it’s this design that boosts its cleaning power, according to Panasonic. The nozzle narrows slightly before widening at the opening, which introduces microbubbles to the jet of water. Once this stream hits the teeth, the bubbles burst to generate shockwaves – the ultrasonic bit – which helps to remove more food debris.
We’re not convinced that these microbubbles do more to clean our teeth compared to the other water flossers we’ve tried, but the device is very effective for removing trapped food and it feels very gentle on our gums. We also liked the greater choice in water pressure as well as the fact that it remembers the last setting we used.
Waterpik cordless select WF-10 water flosser
This cordless water flosser works in much the same way as the countertop ultra plus, except the reservoir and motor are both built into one hand-held, battery-powered device, making it much more portable. A full charge takes four hours – you can do this via the shaver socket or USB – and you’ll need to do this before first use about once a week.
The 207ml reservoir (enough for 45 seconds of use) has a door on the side that you can use to fill it, although you can also detach it for cleaning or to make filling it with mouthwash easier. The cordless select also comes with four interchangeable tips – two classic jet tips, a plaque seeker and an orthodontic tip – making it a great setup for individuals or couples.
We found it much easier to use in terms of getting to those awkward areas without being worried about knocking the reservoir over. But to fully clean our teeth, we had to refill the reservoir two or three times, which was a bit more time consuming. However, because the entire device is waterproof (you can even use it in the shower, although we’d still recommend doing it over a sink), you don’t have to worry about drying things when refilling the reservoir.
The cordless select has just two pressure settings: low and high. While this didn’t affect its effectiveness at all, toggling between the two – all done via the on button – can be a bit awkward. And finally, while portable, it’s not a small device and we’d be hesitant about taking it with us on holiday.
Panasonic EW1311 rechargeable oral irrigator
This Panasonic model is a fairly compact water flosser with two different modes for cleaning your teeth. The “jet” mode sends a powerful blast of water out and is intended to remove food stuck between your teeth while the gentler “air in” mode, with a regular and soft setting, can be used for periodontal pocket cleaning and gum massages. You get four jet tips with the device – they’re all the same shape but in different colours – so a family could in theory use the same oral irrigator, although the wall-mountable charging station only has spaces for storing two tips.
You have to charge the cordless device before the first use, and it takes 15 hours for a full charge (equalling 15 minutes of use), which is a lot longer than we’d like, especially compared to other devices. However, its smaller size means it’s much easier to manoeuvre compared to the Waterpik cordless model. The 130ml reservoir, with water capacity for an equivalent of 35 seconds of use, can be filled up from the side near the base of the device.
We found the waterproof device easy to use, and it was very effective for removing trapped food. The positioning of the buttons mean there was no risk of accidentally switching modes or turning the device off. It also remembers the last setting you used, so you can always return to your favourite modes. The jet mode was stronger than we would have liked for cleaning between our teeth, and we actually found the regular “air in” mode just as effective.
Spotlight Oral Care water flosser
Spotlight Oral Care’s flosser is a compact, portable device that’s designed for one. Like other portable water flossers, this one needs to be charged before use; it takes six hours via the shaver socket for a full charge, which should last for around a week. Once fully charged and filled with warm water, install one of the four interchangeable tips supplied with the device – the classic jet, orthodontic tip, periodontal pocket tip and tongue scraper – and use the device over the sink.
The benefit of this one is that it’s compact enough to take on holiday. This is thanks to the clever reservoir design: the bottom slides down and effectively doubles the length of the device while creating a cavity that’s big enough for 190ml of water. During use, the bottom slowly slides back into its original position so you know when the reservoir is empty and ready for refill or storage. However, you can only fill the device from the bottom which can make it quite awkward if you have a shallow sink.
To switch the device on and off, press and hold the power button for a second. You can then use the same button to toggle between the three different modes: normal, soft and pulse. One thing we liked was that the device remembered the last setting used, so there was no need to toggle between different pressures to find the right one every time you switched it on.
However, we found that the positioning of the button meant that during use, we’d frequently press it by accident and either switch to a different setting or switch it off completely. The elliptical shape of the body meant that it was very difficult to adjust how we held the device to mitigate this. And while we had good results with the Spotlight water flosser, the smaller capacity reservoir meant that we had to refill it three or four times during each use.
Philips HX8438/01 airfloss ultra electric flosser
The smallest of the water flossers we tried is the Philips HX8438/01 airfloss ultra, which, at around the same size as an electric toothbrush, is a great one for travelling. It’s unique in that it uses the power of air more than water so there’s no need for a big reservoir like the other devices. The idea is that you place the nozzle against the gap between your teeth, next to the gum line, and press what can be best described as the eject button. Once you press it, a powerful jet of air and a little water is blasted through that gap, dislodging any food.
While other water flossers had gentler modes, the airfloss ultra only gives you the option of receiving one, two or three blasts of air and water each time you press the eject button and those blasts are surprisingly forceful. We found this quite disconcerting to use at first because it was so powerful – we’d be cautious about recommending it to those with sensitive teeth or with fixed retainers or braces for example – but some users love it.
Intuitively, one blast should be the gentlest but we actually found three blasts to be the easiest on our teeth and this is the mode we ended up relying on. Overall it did a fairly good job at dislodging food in the hard to reach places, but because of our preference for the gentler mode, the results sometimes varied depending on what we ate. It’s worth noting as well that the tip doesn’t rotate, unlike its competitors, but this doesn’t seem to have affected its use.
The verdict: Water flossers
The Waterpik ultra plus WP-150 offered the best value for money, especially for families, and we liked that it offered so many ways to adjust the device to suit you. However, you would need quite a specific bathroom setup to make it work. Top of the cordless options was the Panasonic EW1311, which delivered the adjustable cleaning power we needed and can be fully-charged in no time. The Waterpik cordless select WF-10 water flosser was a close second thanks to its selection of tips that expand its cleaning function.
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