Just getting participants to floss properly presented one of the biggest challenges of mounting the studies discussed in this article, said Christine Charles, associate director for clinical research in Pfizer's oral care area. Participants in the flossing groups were taught the proper technique by dental hygienists and then made to demonstrate that they could do it themselves before they were sent home (carrying written instructions) to go it alone.

Just jamming the floss between your teeth until it meets the gum isn't effective at removing plaque, Charles said, and can actually cause problems by pushing bacteria into the gum. Instead, she suggested, think of shining a shoe: Wrap the floss around the edge of the tooth the way a shoeshine cloth gets wrapped around the edge of a shoe.

Richard D'Sousa, Pfizer's vice president for consumer health care research and development, said flossing's main purpose is to scrape bacteria-harboring plaque off your teeth every day, before it can cause gingivitis or more serious disease. If you're just trying to get that stray popcorn kernel or bit of steak out from between your teeth, he says, a toothpick will do just fine.

Here's the American Dental Association's guide to flossing:

* Break off about 18 inches of floss and wind most of it around the middle finger of one hand. Wind the remaining floss around the same finger of the opposite hand. This finger will take up the floss as it becomes soiled. Hold the floss tightly between your thumbs and forefingers.

* Guide the floss between your teeth using a gentle rubbing motion. Never snap the floss into the gums.

* When the floss reaches the gum line, curve it into a C shape against one tooth. Gently slide it into the space between the gum and the tooth.

* Hold the floss tightly against the tooth. Gently rub the side of the tooth, moving the floss away from the gum with up and down motions.

* Repeat this method on the rest of your teeth.

Don't forget the back side of your last tooth.

-- Jennifer Huget