Fluoride and Tooth Decay
Fluoride is a compound of the element fluorine, the 13th most abundant element, which is naturally present in water, soil, and air, as well as in most foods. Fluoride is absorbed easily into tooth enamel, helping to strengthen it, and is also effective in preventing cavities from forming.
Fluoride was first added to community water supplies in the 1940s, but today, most cities and countries add fluoride to their public water supplies. Community water fluoridation is an effective, safe, and inexpensive way to prevent tooth decay. This method of fluoride delivery benefits people of all ages and socioeconomic status.
Your teeth are made of a form of the mineral calcium. Bacteria that naturally live in your mouth combine with food particles and become plaque, which secretes acid that can weaken a spot in your tooth enamel, which in turn, becomes a cavity, also called tooth decay.
Fluoride helps to prevent this tooth decay in three ways:
- The fluoride in your saliva can be absorbed into the surface of a tooth where decay has occurred. The presence of fluoride then attracts other minerals, such as calcium, resulting in the formation of new tooth mineral.
- The fluoride present in your mouth not only repairs the decay damage to your teeth, it creates a tooth surface that is more resistant to decay. The mineral that is re-formed on your tooth by fluoride is a “harder” mineral compound than what existed when the tooth initially formed and is therefore more resistant to the acid in plaque.
- The third way in which fluoride prevents tooth decay is to decrease the rate at which the bacteria in dental plaque produce acid. Fluoride disrupts plaque’s ability to metabolize sugars, which lowers the amount of acid that will be produced, which means fewer attacks on your tooth enamel.
To take advantage of these decay-preventing properties, you need prolonged exposure to a very small amount of fluoride. Brushing three times a day with toothpaste that contains fluoride is an ideal way to keep fluoride in your saliva. So is drinking fluoridated water. Research has shown that simply introducing fluoride into a city’s drinking water supply can reduce its inhabitants’ rate of tooth decay between 40 and 70 percent.
If given to children while teeth are forming, fluoride becomes part of a child’s teeth and gives some protection from decay for the life of the teeth. However, the intake of fluoride in young children should be monitored. Too much fluoride in this developmental stage of your child’s life can lead to dental fluorosis, a discoloration of the tooth enamel. That’s why you should help your child brush his or her teeth when they’re very young (up until about age six). Use only a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste and make sure your child doesn’t swallow their toothpaste. If your child is younger than two, talk to your dentist about an alternate to fluoride toothpaste.
Used with an excellent regime of oral hygiene and a balanced diet, fluoride can help keep your teeth cavity free for life.