Research surrounding fluoride’s benefits for promoting healthy teeth began in the early 1900s when Frederick McKay, a young dentist in Colorado Springs, found that his patients had remarkably resilient teeth. This was at a time when tooth decay and related health issues were nearly an epidemic blight on the nation’s collective smile.
McKay probed at the mystery for years, eventually discovering that the local water supply contained naturally occurring and unusually high levels of fluoride. Studies in other parts of the country that had similarly high levels of fluoride in the local drinking water began to confirm that the naturally fluoridated water was helping protect teeth for people in those geographic areas. Today, the use of fluoride both in toothpaste and as a health-promoting additive in local drinking water supplies is nearly ubiquitous.
How Does Fluoride Protect Teeth?
Fluoride use and fluoridation’s benefits are among the most widely studied public health debates in our nation’s history, with some early studies indicating a 60-percent reduction in tooth decay for baby teeth and a 35-percent reduction in decay for adult teeth. Even now, with fluoride commonly available from other sources like fluoride toothpaste, water fluoridation continues to promote healthy teeth, reducing tooth decay by an additional 20 to 40 percent.
Fluoride protects teeth both systemically and topically. Systemic fluoride protection means fluoride has been ingested into our bodies and is now in our system. While teeth are forming, fluoride is deposited throughout the entire tooth, providing a wall of resistance against tooth decay. Systemic fluoride protection also provides some topical protection because the fluoride in our system mixes with saliva and bathes the teeth in a fluoride solution throughout the day.
Topical fluoride protection is, much like it sounds, when fluoride is applied to the surface of the teeth. A common method of daily topical fluoride treatment to promote healthy teeth is brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste.
Also found in some mouthwashes and rinses, and in more-concentrated fluoride dental treatments, fluoride provides topical fluoride protection by strengthening existing teeth and disrupting acids in the mouth. Specialized fluoride treatments or supplements are beneficial for patients with dry-mouth conditions or gum disease which exposes vulnerable surfaces of the teeth to corrosive acids. Specialized fluoride treatment can also benefit those with a history of frequent cavities or those with crowns, bridges or braces. These dental treatments, while necessary in some cases, can allow acids to collect at the point of intersection with the tooth. A more concentrated fluoride treatment helps combat decay in these vulnerable areas.
Studies have shown both decay-fighting methods, systemic and topical, work together; dental patients can benefit from daily topical fluoride protection even when local water fluoridation provides systemic fluoride protection for teeth.
Fluoride Fights Tooth Decay and Helps Rebuild Enamel
Both systemically and topically, fluoride fights tooth decay by making teeth more resistant to harmful acids from plaque bacteria and sugars that coat the teeth. These acids attack the tooth's enamel, causing demineralization. As we eat and drink throughout the day, our bodies send minerals to our teeth, including fluoride, calcium and phosphate, to remineralize our teeth. Tooth decay results when teeth suffer too much demineralization and not enough mineralization to rebuild the enamel. Fluoride is an important part of this vital remineralization, speeding the process and disrupting acid production.
After decades of extensive studies, fluoride's beneficial properties in promoting healthy teeth are no longer the mystery they were in the early 1900s. In a study that details fluoride’s benefits, the American Dental Association endorses fluoride treatment as an effective way to fight tooth decay and strengthen both forming and existing teeth. Brushing regularly after each meal with a fluoride toothpaste combined with regular dentist checkups is the most effective way to provide preventative care for your teeth and keep your smile looking beautiful.