Fluoride helps strengthen tooth enamel, thus helping them fight off the bacteria that cause tooth decay. For this reason, most types of toothpaste and many mouthwash contain some fluoride.1
What does fluoride do for teeth?
Fluoride, helps prevent tooth decay by making the enamel, or outer surface, of your teeth more resistant to the acid attacks that cause tooth decay.2
There are multiple ways that fluoride helps your teeth and oral health. Before your teeth even break through your gums and into your mouth, they are growing and preparing for all the harsh things that may decay them over time Fluoride can help tooth enamel strengthen in these early stages of your teeth.
Stronger enamel means less decay. Once your teeth are out of your gums, fluoride continues to help your teeth through the process of remineralization. As the things you eat and drink begin to strip your teeth of its enamel, remineralization from fluoride helps keep them strong and healthy, thus warding off tooth decay.3 Fluoride is often added to water to and has been a contributor to the decline of the rate of tooth decay. Studies have shown that water fluoridation can reduce the amount of decay in children’s teeth by 18 - 40%.4
Community water fluoridation is so effective at preventing tooth decay that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named it one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.5 It has been endorsed by numerous U.S. Surgeons General, and more than 100 health organizations recognize the health benefits of water fluoridation for preventing dental decay, including the CDC, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.6
Where does fluoride come from?
Fluoride is derived from the naturally occurring and abundant element fluorine.7 Fluorine is low on the periodic table—which is a sign of relative abundance—and is commonly found in its fluoride form in food, soil and even can be naturally found in water. While fluorine in its pure form is a reactive gas, fluoride is a safe and stable iteration of it.8
What are the risks of using fluoride?
Fluoride may be good for you, too much can cause adverse effects. One of the most common dangers of too much fluoride, dental fluorosis, actually is not particularly dangerous at all. Dental fluorosis comes from a child being exposed to too much fluoride while their teeth are still in the developmental stages. This leads to white marks appearing on their teeth that, while not dangerous, can be noticeable and unsightly.9
The best way to prevent dental fluorisis is to minimize the extra fluoride that a young child gets. Oral health organizations recommend breastfeeding children as a means of keeping their teeth from getting too much fluoride. It is also recommended that mouthwash not be given to children under the age of six, as it usually contains some amount of fluoride in it.10
How much fluoride is recommended?
Various health organizations have set their own standards on recommended fluoride levels. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says optimal level of fluoride for preventing tooth decay is 0.7 milligrams in every liter of water.11 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the maximum allowable level at 4 milligrams per liter of water. The EPA says the reason for the discrepancy is due to the different agency’s purposes. The EPA’s standard protects against risks from exposure to too much fluoride, while the HHS’s standard is set to promote public health benefits of fluoride for preventing tooth decay while minimizing the chance for dental fluorosis.12
If you are concerned that you may be exposed to too much fluoride, there are some steps you can take to fully understand your exposure.13
If your drinking water comes from a public source, you can contact your local water system to determine the levels of fluoride. The CDC has a tool you can use to check your local water supply. This tool tells you whether your city fluoridates its water. If you get your water from a well, you can have fluoride levels tested by a laboratory.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that parents give children under the age of 6 only a pea-sized amount of toothpaste for brushing and should do their best to make sure their children are not swallowing. If your child is younger than two, consult your dentist about using fluoride toothpaste.14
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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. It is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.