Is fluoride important to dental health?

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that is released from the earth’s crust and found in our soil, water, air and some foods we eat or drink. In the past century, fluoride has also been added to many water supplies across the United States and to dental hygiene products such as toothpaste and mouthwash.

Terry Norris, DMD, the lead consulting dentist for Paramount Dental, discusses fluoride’s history, use and benefits to dental health.

History of Fluoride and Dental Health

The connection between fluoride and healthy teeth was first recognized by dentists when they began noticing lower numbers of dental caries (cavities) in those who drank water with naturally occurring fluoride.

In 1945, Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the first city to fluoridate its water supply. After seeing fewer cavities in school-age children in Grand Rapids, controlled fluoridation of water supplies received their endorsement. Today, just over 75 years later, 67% of Americans receive fluoridated tap water.

Fluoridated water supplies were not the only source of fluoride added to everyday life. In 1956, Crest released the world’s first fluoride toothpaste. Today, your options for fluoridated dental products expand a whole aisle at the pharmacy or grocery store.

How does fluoride prevent cavities?

Fluoride prevents cavities in several unique ways. It has antimicrobial properties that repel the bacteria that cause cavities. Fluoride also disturbs pH levels. Bacteria must maintain a neutral pH to survive and grow. When fluoride is present, the pH level is disturbed, and bacteria must use more energy to maintain a neutral pH and therefore have less energy to grow.

“Fluoride has a two-prong approach in preventing cavities: systemic and topical,” Dr. Norris explains. “Fluoride in municipal water systems works systemically on the inside of the tooth to strengthen a key mineral during tooth formation. Then, fluoride in toothpaste, mouthwash and water aid in decreasing the acidity of plaque and re-mineralizing damaged enamel to halt the progression of cavities and repair the damage.”

Getting Your Daily Dose of Fluoride

The best way to receive an adequate intake of fluoride is through a combination of the following channels:

  • Fluoridated toothpaste: Look for toothpaste with the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance. The product must contain fluoride to receive the ADA Seal of Acceptance.
  • Fluoridated mouthwash: Look for a mouthwash that contains fluoride. Mouthwashes may contain breath-freshening agents but not fluoride.
  • Fluoride varnish: Fluoride varnish is applied to your teeth at each six-month dental cleaning. This special varnish is designed to release fluoride slowly, better protecting your teeth until your next cleaning.
  • Fluoridated water: Look online or contact your water utility provider to determine if your water is fluoridated. Some cities may add fluoride to their water source, while fluoride may be naturally occurring in other sources.
  • A balanced diet: Fluoride is naturally occurring in many foods and drinks. Higher concentrations of fluoride are found in potatoes, apples, spinach, black tea, coffee and wine.

“An adequate amount of fluoride can be obtained systemically through fluoridated water and eating foods that contain fluoride such as fruits and vegetables. Topical amounts of fluoride are available through fluoridated toothpaste and mouthwash. If your water is fluoridated there is no need for fluoride supplement drops,” Dr. Norris shares.

Is fluoride toxic or bad for my overall health?

Although rare, fluoride toxicity or overexposure can happen. “The main concern of too much fluoride occurs early in life, from infancy through early elementary school, when the teeth are forming prior to coming into the mouth,” Dr. Norris shares. However, when used with supervision, fluoride proves to be a powerful tool in promoting and maintaining good oral health in children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children begin using fluoridated toothpaste in small quantities as soon as they get their first tooth; just a rice-sized amount is recommended for children under three. Then, beginning at three, most children may brush with a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste.

If you have concerns about getting too much or too little fluoride, contact your local health department to see if your water is fluoridated and falls within governmental guidelines. If it is not fluoridated, they can recommend a fluoride supplement and dosage amount.

If you have questions or concerns about topical fluoride treatments such as toothpaste or mouthwash, ask your dentist at your next appointment.