HealthIs Going to the Dentist Every Six Months a Scam or Nah?
It’s Do I Have To? Practical advice for skeptical adults.
Do I have to go to the dentist twice a year? Can I go once a year?
Hello. First, I love that you’re questioning everything. Skepticism is one of our greatest assets as humans. So are our chompers!
Short answer: You're probably safe going once a year. My first instinct was to call my beloved dentist. She’s great. Because of a confusion that I could not correct because there were sharp metal objects in my mouth, she believes I work for the New Yorker and spends our time together reviewing New Yorker articles she likes. It’s wonderful and she should have a podcast. However, I did not call her because I very much understand procrastinating about the dentist, which is what you are writing about.
Your question is also coming hot after a recent hullabaloo about flossing, after the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services dropped mention of it from dietary guidelines for Americans, because there wasn’t much evidence it helped with gum health over a significant period of time. At best, there is “mediocre evidence” that it helps reduce bloody gums and inflammation (gingivitis), but the evidence quality was “very low.”
This felt like a seismic betrayal: WE HAVE BEEN DOING THIS TERRIBLE MINOR THING FOR SO LONG AND NO ONE IS POSITIVE WHY? And the truth seems remains out of grasp. The most convincing rebuttal was from Matt Simon on Wired, which was highly philosophical, and basically amounted to: Well, the evidence isn’t there, but it has never been there, and it isn’t not there. There is truly no possible way to argue with that. On a discourse level, this is an inaccessible argument.
Going to the dentist every six months, as a rule, is similarly unsupported. The dental hygienist is there to scrape off the tartar that builds up in the average of six months. Higher-risk people, who should go to the dentist more include: smokers, pregnant women, diabetics, people with immune systems that are susceptible to bacterial infection, people who currently have gum disease, people who often get cavities or plague-problems. I did some research about whether there is evidence that people outside of this list should go every six months.
In 2000, three-quarters of dentists recommended six month checkups, even without evidence. In 2002, there was an examination into whether going every half-year was linked to healthy teeth. There wasn’t much evidence for that.
In 2003, there was a systematic review of the research about six-month check-ups. Mixed results. In 2013, there was another systematic review, and they found that the evidence was too paltry and too poor quality to even look into. My personal favorite piece of knowledge: this go-every-six-months suggestion has been possibly floating around since the 1700s. I believe this discredits the whole operation because I don’t trust anyone from the distant past about anything.
This new proclamation about the untested effects of flossing begat much rage. The rage is about frustration with that we never know the truth even when we think we do, and things are out of our control even when we think they're in our control. If we floss, we floss to be in control of our gum health. Turns out, maybe it doesn't! If we go to the dentist, it's as a ritual to have super healthy teeth. But maybe it doesn't! Hearing that there is no evidence, after you believed that there must have been, is infuriating. Why would someone have told us to do something, if they didn't have the support to back it up? The base of this rage was: WHO IS IN CHARGE?
This made me think of something I read about authority and truth and unknowability, by Daniel Hiddleswift, who writes for the Colbert Show and seems wise. I think about it every day. Anyway, he wrote: “When I was a kid I found a pocket dictionary that defined 'bucket' as 'pail' and vice-versa and realized that no one's in charge of anything.”
No one is in charge of anything. This is dizzying. So who do you trust? I trust my dentist who deserves her own podcast and, during our last visit, she told me I could wait a year before I saw her again. I was too scared to call her to ask her to confirm. But also, two years ago, she told me to floss to prevent a cavity and then I did and then she said it was gone! So, who is ever to know anything. Good luck to you, good luck to your biters, and I apologize on behalf of evidence.
Are you skeptical about whether you have to do something? Send your leading questions to [email protected] It’s a weekly thing!