When you look in the mirror at your teeth, the shiny hard coating you can see is tooth enamel.1 It is a calcified substance that covers and protects the crown of the tooth—the part you can see above the gums.
Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, even harder than bone. Unlike bone and other human tissues, enamel cannot repair itself. If tooth enamel becomes broken, weakened, or decayed, only a dentist can fix the damage.
What is the purpose of tooth enamel?
The hard enamel coating on your teeth serves many purposes. It protects the underlying softer tissue, called dentin, which is filled with sensitive nerve tissues.2 The enamel insulates the dentin and protects it from hot and cold, acids in foods and drinks and from bacteria that causes cavities.
Since enamel is so hard, it makes it possible for you to chew food without damaging the gums or nerves. The enamel, along with its bumpy shapes on the back teeth, makes it possible for you to grind up hard foods like nuts, crackers and chips.
Can tooth enamel be damaged?
Certain foods that contain sugar and simple carbohydrates that convert to sugar when chewed, like bread and pasta, can damage teeth over time by helping plaque grow. Plaque, a sticky film that forms daily on tooth enamel, feeds on the sugars and acids from food and drinks.3 The bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack tooth enamel. The stickiness of the plaque keeps the acids in contact with your teeth and the enamel can break down over time, which puts you at risk for developing cavities.4
How can I protect my tooth enamel?
You can protect your tooth enamel in three ways: by keeping your teeth clean, avoiding certain foods and having regular dental visits.5
Daily plaque removal with a toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss can help protect your enamel. Removing food debris and acids left by beverages starves the plaque, which needs the sugars to live and breed.
Another way to protect your enamel is by avoiding eating sugary foods and acidic drinks. For good dental health, also avoid sugar in sweetened tea and coffee.
Visiting your dentist regularly for professional cleanings can also help protect your teeth. Having a professional cleaning allows the dentist or dental hygienist to find weak spots in the enamel that they can treat with fluoride gels and varnishes. These products rebuild and strengthen the enamel.6
Can a dentist fix my tooth enamel?
If caught in an early stage, the application of fluoride varnishes, gels, and other materials, which are only available to dentists, can help stop new decay from getting larger. Dental fillings can fix decay that has penetrated slightly into the enamel. Your dentist may use tooth-colored materials to fill the hole that is left in the enamel after removing all the decay.7
Most dental insurance covers preventive services, like cleanings and fluoride treatments, and may also cover fillings and crowns. Check with your policy provider to see what your plan covers.
Tips for healthy tooth enamel
To keep your teeth healthy and your enamel strong, see your dentist regularly and follow these tips:8
- Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste
- Floss to remove plaque that your toothbrush can’t reach
- Eat a healthy diet
- Visit your dentist regularly
- Take advantage of fluoride treatments and other preventive services
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