What is fluoride?
Fluoride is a mineral that is naturally present in varying amounts in almost all foods and water supplies. Fluoride is also used in many consumer dental products such as toothpaste and fluoride mouth rinses.
How does fluoride reduce tooth decay?
Fluoride acts in two ways: topically and systemically. Topical fluorides strengthen teeth that have already erupted into the mouth. As the fluoride washes over the tooth surface, it is incorporated into the outer surface of the tooth, making it more resistant to decay. Additionally, topical fluoride is used to protect and desensitize root surfaces by providing additional mineralization to the naturally occurring “softer” root surface.
Systemic fluorides are those that are ingested through food and water and are used by the body as teeth are formed. Systemic fluorides, if ingested regularly during tooth formation, will be deposited throughout the developing layer of enamel, creating a stronger, more decay resistant outer layer. Systemic fluorides also protect teeth topically, as the fluoride is present in saliva, which continually bathes the teeth, promoting remineralization or repair of tooth surfaces that have been damaged by acids early in the decay process. Additionally, fluoride becomes incorporated into the dental plaque layer and can contribute further to the remineralization process.
How can I get fluoride?
Topical fluoride comes from use of fluoride containing toothpastes, mouth rinses, and gels, which are placed directly onto the teeth. Children are routinely provided with topical fluoride applications at their dental checkup visits, as this is one of the most effective ways of providing the benefits of topical fluoride to newly erupted teeth. Additionally, depending on the level of decay activity or root surface sensitivity you or your child are experiencing, Dr. Wu may prescribe a product with more available fluoride than can be found in over-the-counter products.
Systemic fluoride is available through community water supplies that either have naturally occurring levels of fluoride that are optimal or have had fluoride added to reach optimal levels. In communities without fluoridated water supplies, systemic fluoride is available through bottled water purchased specifically for its fluoride content or through fluoride tablets or vitamins prescribed by Dr. Wu or your child’s pediatrician. Remember, in order for fluoride to exert systemic benefits, it must be ingested. So, if you do not live in a community with fluoridated water, consult your dentist or physician about the need for another method of fluoride supplementation.
Who benefits from fluoride?
Everyone can benefit from fluoride’s ability to help prevent tooth decay. Unfortunately, only 30 percent of California’s water supply is fluoridated, which means that large portions of California’s population are without the systemic benefits that fluoride provides. If your community is considering fluoridating its water supply, it is in your best interests to support these efforts, not only for yourself and your children, but for all those members of your community that do not have access to dental care and other means of fluoride supplementation and the cavity protection it provides.
If some fluoride is good, is more fluoride better?
The benefits of fluoride have been well known for over 50 years and are supported by numerous health and professional organizations, including the California Dental Association, the American Dental Association, The American Medical Association, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Public Health Service and the World Health Organization. However, as with nearly all substances we ingest, there are levels that are safe, levels that are optimal, and levels that can cause negative effects. When fluoride is ingested above optimal levels, a condition called dental fluorosis can result. While dental fluorosis is not harmful, it may cause discoloration, or white spots, on your child’s teeth.
Parents should be aware of the sources of systemic fluoride their child receives. If your community water supply is fluoridated, then that will supply the optimal amount of systemic fluoride and tablets or vitamins should not be ingested. Additionally, young children (those who cannot spit after brushing their teeth) should only use a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste to ensure that unmeasured amounts of fluoride are not ingested.
What to remember?
Fluoride alone will not prevent tooth decay; it is only one of the tools necessary for maintaining strong teeth and positive oral health. Remember to brush your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste, floss daily, eat a balanced diet, and limit the frequency of snacking, especially sweet and sticky foods. Just as important, visit Dr. Wu regularly and follow his or her recommendations for your family’s optimal oral health.
(Modified from CDA publications.)