The philosophical case for spending your money on luxury dental floss

“How much better can it be?”
“How much better can it be?”
Image: Cocofloss
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Cocofloss is no ordinary floss. It comes in flavors including strawberry and mango. It is more fibrous than typical drugstore brands, and at $8 a pop, considerably more expensive. And it is coated in coconut oil, the wellness world’s tonic of choice.

I was explaining all this on a recent afternoon to my coworker Marc Bain as I urged him to try a sample. He seemed puzzled, but he agreed to give luxury floss a shot. “I’m curious,” he said. “How much better can it be?”

That’s the big question when it comes to Cocofloss, a US company founded in 2015 by Chrystle Cu, a dentist based in San Mateo, California, and her sister, Catherine Cu. Getting people excited about buying floss is a tough sell since, in general, people are not super into flossing. A 2015 survey found that roughly a quarter of Americans lie to their dentists about how often they floss, while a 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a third of Americans never floss at all. “Even motivated patients fail” to floss, one 2006 study sadly observes.

But Cocofloss wants to make flossing seem fun—even a little aspirational. The company’s goal: To carve out a niche for floss within the flourishing self-care and wellness movements. It’s not such an outlandish idea: “Lots of elements of the daily self-care routine have been improved and glamorized,” Chrystle points out.

Washing our faces or putting on moisturizer used to be a humdrum activity, it’s worth remembering. Sure, people wanted clear, soft skin, but the processes and products used to achieve that weren’t meant to be a treat. Now, skincare has been transformed into a legitimate hobby—a relaxing experience in itself, with beauty benefits to boot. “I like the ritual element,” Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, told The Cut’s Ashley Weatherford. “I like saying: ‘It is bedtime, I do these things.’ And I look forward to it. My life is so busy, and just setting aside that time is really satisfying.”

The Cu sisters think Cocofloss can get people to look forward to the decidedly unglamorous act of flossing in much the same way. “People think, ‘Wow, I’m gonna treat myself to cleaning my skin today,’” says Chrystle. “That’s how it should be with your teeth.” Flossing, she says, is inherently “a self-care thing.”

”It helps improve overall health and how beautiful your teeth will be and how long they’ll last,” she says.

The product is already sold at a variety of stores and e-commerce sites that cater to well-heeled clientele, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop, Sephora, Anthropologie, Nordstrom, Free People, the beauty store Violet Grey, and the upscale pharmacy CO Bigelow.

But to convince people not just to buy floss, but to shell out for more expensive floss, the company must take a necessary but unpleasant task and turn it into a fun, bonafide wellness experience.

Does flossing need to be a fun, bonafide wellness experience?

That’s unclear. But then again, why wouldn’t we want it to be?

The problem with flossing

As Jessie Rack writes for NPR, there are plenty of deterrents that make people dread flossing: “The floss is hard to get between your teeth. It makes your gums bleed. It’s slimy. Tiny particles of food are flung onto your bathroom mirror. And there’s no immediate payoff, like the fresh-breath feeling you get from brushing your teeth.”

Much to Chrystle Cu’s frustration, her own sister—the relative of a dentist!—used to avoid flossing. “Cat understands [the] importance of overall health and is willing to do certain things like take that spinning class and wake up early in the morning to make a nice smoothie,” she recalls. “But she wasn’t going to floss.”

And so Chrystle set to thinking about how she might convince people that flossing was an activity to be enjoyed. Variety was one thing that came immediately to mind; patients at her dental practice loved her many-flavored polishes when they came to get their teeth cleaned.It’s a luxury to have choices,” Chrystle says.

Equally important to Cocofloss’s strategy was creating an appropriately upbeat brand. “All our branding is inspired by things we love, that make us happy,” says Chrystle, “which for us is Hawaii—something tropical and delightful. That moment you take for yourself with flossing, why not have it remind you of a day at the beach?”

That’s a lot of pressure for a little container of floss. Cocofloss is certainly trying its best. It comes in a range of fragrances meant to evoke a tropical vacation, including Cara Cara Orange, Fresh Coconuts, Delicious Mint, and Pure Strawberries. Chrystle compares the texture of the floss to a “beach towel,” which is a pretty accurate description: Made out of hundreds of polyester fibers, it’s thicker and softer and more fibrous than typical slippery floss, with a better grip on your teeth.

The color of the floss (no matter what the flavor) is turquoise, the color of a tropical sea. The floss arrives in translucent boxes with a thumb-shaped dent in the side and a little spiral design, which evokes both a seashell and a roll of floss. “Relax and floss,” the plastic container advises—an unusual juxtaposition of directives.

I decide to ask my coworkers, to whom I have distributed samples of Cocofloss, whether the floss reminds them of a day at the beach.

“No,” said Leah. “I think it’s adorable and I like how it looks, but in utility, I really don’t like how it’s not waxed. It makes me cringe, the sound of it.”

“Cocofloss most definitely does not remind me of a day at the beach,” said Marc, noting that he was a bit put off by the thickness of the floss. “I know it’s supposed to be like a towel for your teeth or whatever, but to me it’s more like a rope for your teeth.”

Molly, on the other hand, enjoyed the sturdiness of the floss. “Other floss is slippery; you feel like you don’t get any traction,” she said. “This, I can feel it, the fibrous scraping.”

Another coworker, Arielle, was also a fan. “It feels way less harsh than regular floss but it still cleans just as well,” she said. “You don’t get the weird squeaking and it doesn’t hurt your gums as much as regular floss does. I didn’t get any taste at all, which I like, and the packaging was great.”

I personally do not find Cocofloss to be particularly beach-like. But I do find it enjoyable. Its thickness means that you can see more of the food you’re getting out from between your teeth, which is satisfying. (As the writer Emily Gould, who first alerted me to the existence of Cocofloss in her newsletter, explains, “It makes flossing as satisfying as popping a giant, ripe, easily-slides-out blackhead.”)

Then there’s the distinctive packaging of Cocofloss, which makes it a fun bathroom centerpiece—a conversation-starter with guests.

And there’s actually a health justification for making floss a product attractive enough to put on display.

“If you’re brushing and not flossing, it’s because the floss is in the deepest darkest drawer, or behind the prettier bottles,” Catherine says. “We wanted something that people weren’t afraid to display on their countertop—a daily visual reminder.”

The lure of aspirational consumption

But if I’m honest, what attracts me the most to Cocofloss is its symbolism. Because it’s a small luxury, snapping off a coconut-scented piece at the end of the day allows me to indulge in a vision of myself as a calm, collected, virtuous person; the kind of woman who uses sheet masks and makes her bed and has never, not once, had an overdue bill. It’s an example of the inconspicuous consumption patterns identified by sociologist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in her book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Currid-Halkett explains that these days, it’s less fashionable to splurge on a flashy Birkin bag than to put your money toward items that denote a set of values. Buying free-range chicken and wild salmon shows that you care about animals and the environment; a New Yorker tote bag demonstrates your erudition; and a slightly splurge-y piece of floss is a way of telling the world—or at least yourself—that you’re someone who’s willing to invest in your health.

My dentist, Kevin Hansen, suggests there’s nothing particularly miraculous about Cocofloss. “It is a good product and seems to work well,” he wrote via email after trying out a sample. “However, I don’t believe it would be worth paying a premium for it when there are less expensive alternatives that can do the same job.”

But even if the floss itself isn’t worth $8, it’s hard to quantify the value of the branding—the way it manages to suggest, if you are susceptible to such marketing efforts, that flossing is a bit of a treat. “I found myself using it more often [than regular floss],” my coworker Elijah said of Cocofloss, “but I wasn’t sure if that was just because you told me it was fancy.”

Small indulgences, after all, make people happy—especially when we can’t afford bigger ones. That’s why millennials are willing to throw down for avocado toast, as Olivia Goldhill explains for Quartz. Quoting anthropology professor Michael Silverstein, Goldhill writes that “A relative luxury can be ‘a little symbol of ascendance, a small but welcomed and rewarding intrusion of how the uppers live into one’s rather pronouncedly lower life.’”

The Cu sisters are aware of this source of appeal. “I sometimes think of it as something like Pellegrino water,” says Cat. “It’s something that feels luxurious, but it’s something everyone can afford and can enjoy … Every day I get one, I feel like it’s a small way to treat myself.”

But, wiggling the floss through my teeth one night, I pondered whether there might be a downside to enjoying my luxury floss. Does every part of our lives have to be nice? Might there be a benefit to dealing with tasks that we don’t enjoy particularly, but are willing to muddle through?

Flossing and pleasure

People who pride themselves on frugality and practicality might well argue that it doesn’t matter whether flossing is fun; you should just do it as cheaply as possible. It’s a medical necessity, not an aesthetic life choice.

But the theory of ethical hedonism would hold that, when it comes to flossing and other tedious tasks, we actually have a moral responsibility to maximize pleasure in life however we can—so long as it doesn’t come at a cost to others. “We recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good,” wrote the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus in “A Letter to Menoeceus.”

If you’re thinking that the pursuit of pleasure is a good excuse to avoid flossing entirely, think again. “Epicurus gave us a mathematical maxim: do not accept a pleasure here and now if it must be paid back later in pain,” contemporary French philosopher Michael Onfray explains in A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist. In other words, the fleeting pleasure that accompanies eschewing flossing in favor of getting into bed a few minutes earlier would be outweighed by the total drag of having gum disease later on. And so, if the goal in life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, the best thing to do is to find a way to look forward to flossing, at least a little.

The Cu sisters embrace this argument. “Life is a series of very small moments,” Cat says. “Personally when I can, I choose products for their quality and the experience they provide.”

Granted, it would be nice if we didn’t have to trick ourselves into doing stuff that’s good for us. But a lot of us do. And if pretending that flossing is a little bit like having a nice day at the beach makes you more likely to actually floss, then maybe it’s worth shelling out a few extra bucks.

At this particular juncture in world history, after all, there are a lot of people feeling worn-down and pushed around. It can be hard to find the energy to take care of ourselves, let alone others. But if we want to locate any sense of hope for the future, it is necessary to turn the dull, hard work of being alive in the early decades of the 21st century into something sustainable, and invite in whatever pleasures we can.

That may or may not involve Cocofloss for you. I get it, either way. But for my own part, I think I’ll be stocking up on a few more boxes. I like the message it sends. Hey, you and your chompers matter, I imagine my little box of floss saying to me each night. Have some fun. Stick around.