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What is fluoride?

Find out what this tooth-saving substance really is and why it’s important

GettyImages_139542047You’ve completed your dental exam and routine cleaning, and the hygienist asks if you want a fluoride treatment. While you are not fond of the foamy rinse, your doctor assures you that this weird-textured substance will help to ensure a lifetime of healthy teeth.

But what exactly is fluoride?

Scott & White dentist Kyle Frazier, DDS, offers some answers about this tooth-saving chemical and why it is important in maintaining good oral hygiene.

What is fluoride?

“Flouride is a compound of the element fluorine, which you may remember from the periodic table of the elements,” Dr. Frazier said.

And although it is often added to drinking water to improve the health of the community, the compound is actually found naturally in water sources and in food and beverages we eat and drink on a daily basis.

“Flouride compounds are present in rocks and soil,” the dentist said. “As a result, when water passes over rocks, fluoride is released into the water.”

How does fluoride benefit teeth?

Fluoride is used in dentistry to reduce tooth decay and strengthen tooth structure. It also works to slow down the metabolism of the bacteria that cause tooth decay.

There are two ways in which fluoride is introduced: systemically and topically.

Systemically

This is when fluoride is ingested by children through fluoridated drinking water. Exposure to fluoride in this way helps to strengthen developing teeth so they will be more resistant to decay. When the compound is incorporated systemically, it becomes present in the drinker’s saliva.

“This constantly bathes teeth throughout the day,” Dr. Frazier said. “This effect on the saliva is beneficial to both children and adults.”

Topically

This means the fluoride compound is administered directly to the teeth during a dental visit.

“When the fluoride comes in contact with teeth, it strengthens them by sitting on their surfaces—the same surfaces that are affected by acid from soft drinks and decay-producing bacteria.”

What are some misconceptions about fluoride?

While fluoride is generally accepted as a safe method of strengthening teeth and reducing tooth decay, some are leery of a chemical being added to their drinking water.

“There has been controversy regarding the safety of water fluoridation for quite some time,” Dr. Frazier said. “There is a condition called fluorosis which is caused by consumption of an excessive amount of fluoride. However, this issue has been studied and re-studied, and due to the relatively low concentration of fluoride produced by water fluoridation, its safety has been well established.”

The American Dental Association has stated that “scientific evidence indicates that fluoridation of community water supplies is safe.”

In fact, many places in the country, including areas in west Texas, natural fluoride concentration in the communities’ water systems is much higher than areas where water is routinely fluoridated.

What should patients know about fluoride?

“Water fluoridation has actually been considered one of the greatest public health initiatives in American history,” the dentist said.

Dr. Frazier uses fluoride treatments in his practice on patients that have high rates of tooth decay or patients who have small cavities beginning to form. These small cavities can often be remineralized with the use of fluoride, which means no fillings for the patient.

“So, fluoride should not be feared, but accepted and used appropriately to lower the risk of dental problems.”

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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What is fluoride?