What is Fluoride?
Fluoride (pronounced “floor-eyed”) is a naturally occurring mineral found nearly everywhere on earth – in air, soil, water, and in many foods and drinks. Nicknamed “nature’s cavity protector,” fluoride significantly decreases the risk of dental cavities by strengthening tooth enamel.
The Fluoride Discovery
In the 1930s, scientists discovered that people who drank water with naturally occurring fluoride levels of or greater than 1 part fluoride per 1 million parts water (≥1.0 ppm) had significantly fewer cavities compared to people who lived in areas with lower fluoride levels in their drinking water. After about a decade of extensive studies and research, Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the first US city to add fluoride to its public water supply in 1945. Children of Grand Rapids were soon found to have significantly less cavities than children from surrounding communities. Other Michigan cities also began fluoridating their community water and saw similar results. Today, fluoride is added to most US public water supplies to the level of approximately 0.7 ppm, or 0.7mg of fluoride per liter of water; the optimal level for preventing tooth decay.
Since community water fluoridation was adopted and made widespread in the US, the rate of cavities has decreased significantly nationwide. Studies have shown that water fluoridation can reduce tooth decay by 60% in children, and nearly 35% in adults. Due to its incredible effectiveness at reducing cavities –while also being safe, accessible and cost saving for all people regardless of income level or access to dental care – the CDC named water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
Types of Fluoride
Topical fluoride is fluoride that is applied “topically” to the teeth via gels or foams. Toothpaste containing fluoride is also an example of topical fluoride.
Systemic fluoride is fluoride that is in food or drinks and becomes absorbed into the body when consumed. Over time, fluoride becomes a part of saliva, and adds back minerals to our teeth.
How Fluoride Protects Our Teeth
Fluoride helps protect our teeth from decay (aka dental caries, or cavities) by strengthening tooth enamel, making enamel more resistant to the cavity-causing acids in the mouth.
Our teeth are constantly losing minerals (a process called demineralization) throughout the day as we eat and drink. Fluoride not only makes teeth more resistant to demineralization, it also speeds up remineralization by attracting calcium and phosphate ions – essential building blocks of tooth enamel – strengthening the mineral composition of enamel, which makes tooth enamel harder, thicker, and more acid resistant.
Fluoride has been shown to halt the progression of tooth decay, and can even reverse early tooth decay. If you or your dentist notice white spots on your teeth, they may indicate areas of decalcified enamel – areas of enamel that have been stripped of their minerals – which is the very beginning stage of tooth decay. If left untreated, decay will progress and destroy tooth enamel, which, once damaged, cannot heal itself. Fortunately, fluoride treatments (along with good oral hygiene) can often restore minerals to enamel and reverse this early decay.
Fluoride works wonders to strengthen tooth enamel and make it more resistant to tooth decay. Ask your dentist if fluoride treatments would benefit you. And as always, drink plenty of water and use an ADA approved fluoridated toothpaste to brush your teeth twice daily!
*Further resources and studies on the dental health benefits and safety of fluoride: