What is fluoride? Many say it’s a deadly chemical while dentists and oral health professionals advocate for its use. The truth is there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation on fluoride, its dangers and its benefits. Below is a quick run-through of the basics you need to know about using fluoride to improve your oral health.
Basics Of Fluoride
For starters, fluoride is an entirely natural compound. The fluoride ion comes from the element fluorine, which is a naturally occurring element that can be found in the earth’s crust. As a result, our freshwater reservoirs, such as lakes and rivers, contain small amounts of fluoride naturally — anywhere from 0.1 to 4 parts per million. This is simply a result of water flowing on and around rocks that contain the element fluorine in them.
The main goal of infusing toothpaste and other dental care products with fluoride is to protect against tooth decay and cavities. According to the American Dental Association, fluoride is the only chemical proven to reduce tooth decay and help to prevent cavities. As such, it’s almost universally recommended by dentists and health professionals as part of a healthy oral care routine.
How Fluoride Works
Fluoride will help strengthen your teeth in one of two ways: ingestion and topical application. Ingestion is rather simple and can significantly improve teeth health in the developmental stages. As fluoride is ingested through a medium, such as drinking water, it is deposited throughout the entirety of the tooth, not just on the surface. This strengthens your teeth and makes them more resistant to acid erosion. Additionally, fluoride will become embedded in saliva, which can routinely bathe your teeth and apply fluoride topically.
Topical fluoride helps in a slightly different way. Tooth decay is a result of the activity of the bacteria in your mouth. The various germs and bacteria in your mouth will feed upon the sugar and starch that are present in foods that you eat. As they consume this sugar and starch, they’ll excrete acid. This acid will alter the pH levels in your mouth. If the pH levels in your mouth drop below a certain threshold (specifically, 5.5 for enamel), the enamel on your teeth will start to wear away.
This is where topical fluoride (such as the kind you’d find in toothpaste) comes in. If fluoride is present when the enamel of your teeth is rebuilding, which happens continuously, it’ll slightly modify the remineralization process. Instead of your teeth rebuilding themselves with hydroxyapatite, they’ll instead rebuild with fluorapatite. The difference between these two materials (aside from their complicated names) is that fluorapatite is more resistant to the acid the bacteria in your mouth produce.
The crux of this is that your teeth are constantly being worn down and rebuilding themselves. Not using a fluoride-based toothpaste for even a few days will cause your teeth to rebuild themselves with the less resistant hydroxyapatite. A constant and consistent presence of fluoride is necessary in order to keep your teeth continually strong.
Depending on who you talk to, the topic of water fluoridation can result in a pretty heated debate. At a high level, the idea of the government adding chemicals to our drinking water sounds a bit scary. As it turns out though, there’s a lot of science to back up the benefits of this.
As mentioned earlier, fluoride occurs in our drinking water naturally; however, this natural amount of fluoride is not enough to help combat the effects of acid erosion on our teeth. As such, water fluoridation became an official policy in the United States in 1951 after numerous studies found it beneficial to preventing tooth decay.
The major concern around water fluoridation is the potential health effects it can have after repeated ingestion. As such, the CDC published an entire study around the effects of water fluoridation. The results were conclusive — water fluoridation is no danger whatsoever. Even at 3 to 6 times the standard amount, there were no observable adverse health effects. Furthermore, the reports around removing fluoride from drinking water show a pretty severe increase in tooth decay.
Simply put: drinking tap water that includes fluoride is good for your oral health.
Dangers of Fluoride
Most of the major danger concerns with fluoride are pretty baseless. Of the 6 adverse health effects listed on Wikipedia’s page on fluoride toxicity, only fluorosis is “the only generally accepted adverse health effect” of fluoride.
What is fluorosis? It’s simply a cosmetic issue that presents itself when increased amounts of fluoride are ingested. Dental fluorosis is generally found in children’s teeth during tooth development. It can cause varying degrees of intrinsic tooth discoloration but is otherwise harmless. General treatments of fluorosis involve teeth bleaching, micro-abrasions, veneers and crowns.
A fluoride-based toothpaste, along with mouthwash and flossing, is an important part of a healthy oral care routine. Most of the concerns around fluoride are based on simple fear and not fact. Water fluoridation can significantly increase resistance to tooth decay and help to prevent cavities. The only concern around fluoride is its use with very young toddlers who may accidentally swallow toothpaste. For these cases, make sure to use fluoride-free toothpaste to help prevent cosmetic issues. Otherwise, fluoride is an extremely helpful way to keep your teeth healthy.