What Is Fluoride?
Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral found in rocks, soil, and water. Fluoride is the most effective agent we rely on to not only prevent cavities (tooth decay), but to even reverse early tooth decay. The benefits of fluoride have been studied and known for over 50 years and are supported by dentists, dental hygienists, and other healthcare professionals.
How Fluoride Prevents and Fights Cavities
Fluoride works by strengthening the enamel, which is the outer layer of our teeth. Enamel is a hard substance, even harder than bone, and is made of minerals like calcium and phosphate. When we eat foods and drinks containing carbohydrates (candy, pasta, bread, etc.), our bodies break down these carbohydrates into sugars. The cavity-forming bacteria in our mouths then digest these sugars, creating harmful acids that break down the enamel of our teeth. Specifically, the acids strip the calcium and phosphates from our enamel, allowing cavities to form.
Our saliva, which also contains calcium and phosphate, coats our teeth and replenishes some of the minerals our enamel lost. This is where fluoride steps in. When we use toothpaste or drink water containing fluoride, it becomes incorporated into our saliva. After the fluoride is absorbed by our teeth, it combines with the calcium and phosphate also absorbed from our saliva, forming fluoroapatite crystals. These fluoroapatite crystals are incredibly strong and protect our teeth by resisting cavity formation. Fluoroapatite can even rebuild the damage caused by early cavities.
Cavities do not stop spreading on their own. Once a cavity has moved from the enamel to the dentin (the inner layer of the tooth), it can no longer be reversed and will only continue to spread. When cavities are left to grow, they move closer to the nerves in the center of our teeth, causing pain and infection. If left untreated, infection can spread to other parts of our bodies (like the brain and heart) and in severe cases can become life-threatening. As beneficial as fluoride is, it is only effective in the enamel and cannot prevent cavities on its own. Consistent home care, dietary considerations, and regular dental exams and cleanings should also be carried out to prevent cavities.
Types of Fluoride
There are two main forms of fluoride that we use to prevent and fight cavities.
Topical fluoride includes products such as toothpastes, mouthrinses, gels, and varnishes. Since topical fluoride is used directly on tooth surfaces, it strengthens teeth that have already erupted in the mouth. Dentists and dental hygienists recommend using toothpastes that contain fluoride. It is also recommended that children have fluoride gel or varnish applied topically twice a year during dental their cleanings.
Systemic fluoride is found in the foods and drinks we consume, such as tap water. It is also available as a supplement in drop or gel form and can be prescribed by your dentist or physician. Systemic fluoride strengthens the teeth that have erupted as well as those that are developing under the gums.
Children with teeth that are still forming should be careful to not use too much fluoride. If a developing tooth is overexposed to fluoride, it may develop white spots. This cosmetic condition is called fluorosis.
*Please note the people depicted in the photographs are models and not real patients.*