When it comes to dental health, we have been told a fair amount about brushing (this way or that?), flossing (should we or not?) and the type of toothbrush to use (regular or electric?). A new debate has joined the fray with regards to the content of toothpaste itself. Fluoride, the main key ingredient in most toothpastes, has received a lot of attention in particular. With the popularity of natural and organic products increasing, more people might be inclined to get fluoride-free toothpaste. But is this a wise decision? Is fluoride in your toothpaste really bad for you? We investigate all the fuss about fluoride.
What is Fluoride?
Here’s the thing: fluoride is, in fact, a mineral (not a chemical) that is found in our bones and teeth. It is also found naturally in plants, rocks and soil, water, and even air. In dentistry, fluoride is used to prevent cavities and tooth decay, as well as strengthen the enamel, which is the outer surface of your teeth.
Many countries around the world practice water fluoridation, the process of adding fluoride to drinking water in order to reduce tooth decay. In fact, Singapore was the first Asian country to introduce it in 1956 as a means to prevent dental caries. This proved successful as by 1984 there was an approximately 34% reduction in dental caries among seven-year-old children.
A Potential Neurotoxin?
Though most dentists advocate the use of it, some have started going against the tide, claiming its potential hazards, especially after medical journal The Lancet published an article about fluoride possibly being a neurotoxin that can accumulate in your body over time. In large doses, it can cause certain side effects.
Two such effects are dental and skeletal fluorosis, which occurs when too much fluoride is consumed during the formation of your teeth and bones. For your teeth, it results in white marks on your teeth enamel and is more likely to affect children under the age of eight who still have teeth growing. Thus, it was advised for children to drink and use filtered instead of tap water.
Initial symptoms of skeletal fluorosis include joint pain and stiffness. More long-term consequences include alteration to the bone structure and calcification of ligaments. Your first reaction might be, “My water supply is killing me!”, but bear in mind that fluorosis only occurs if you are exposed to too much fluoride, over an extended period of time. This is the key reason young children need to be supervised not to swallow fluoride when brushing. Levels in our water are also controlled and regulated to negate such harmful effects.
Allegations have also been made that fluoridated water causes health problems such as bone cancer, kidney disease and arthritis. However, findings have been mixed and inconclusive, with many reporting little or no association.
Fluoride for Healthy Teeth
As mentioned, fluoride is necessary for the prevention of cavities and tooth decay. The digestion of carbs begins in your mouth, and this creates acids that erode the minerals in your enamel. This process is called demineralisation and it weakens your enamel leaving your teeth susceptible to cavities-causing bacteria.
Fluoride to the rescue! Through the absorption of this mineral into the enamel, remineralisation occurs (i.e. rebuilding enamel by replacing lost minerals). Furthermore, it slows the loss of minerals from the enamel and even reverses premature tooth decay. So using toothpaste without fluoride means that you will not be protected against tooth decay and could actually be putting your teeth at higher risk.
But you might still be wondering about fluoride levels in your water. Let’s face it, we have yet to hear about fluoride causing a fluorosis epidemic thus far. For all intent and purposes, it has had an excellent safety record and has in fact shown to lead to a reduction in tooth decay. If these findings do little to convince you, then chew on this: fluoride occurs naturally in bodies of water worldwide and its level in ocean water is much greater than that found in drinking water. Our plants and animals certainly appear to be thriving on the water from public water systems. Not to forget, those living in or near natural water sources have not died out (at least not due to fluoride levels).
A New Way of Brushing
Dentistry wisdom states that dental plaque, the soft, sticky substance around teeth that houses those cavities-causing bacteria, can be removed purely by the mechanical action of brushing and flossing. But fluoride is necessary to prevent the demineralisation that occurs at the first stage of tooth decay and as aforementioned, it can even reverse this process to reduce the likelihood of a full-blown cavity. It is worth mentioning that only daily use of fluoride in toothpaste can have these beneficial effects.
It seems then perhaps fluoride isn’t quite the problem but the way we brush our teeth. We’re aware of the recommendation to brush at least twice a day, but dentists also suggest using only a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your toothbrush for adults, and a rice grain-sized for young children. Using more than that increases the chances of you ingesting more fluoride. Plus, the amount of foam produced may cause you to lose track of where your teeth is actually located. Not to mention it also increases the profits for toothpaste companies. Remember to brush for two minutes and ensure that your brush makes contact with all the nooks and crannies of your tooth; otherwise, you will end up missing spots. Next time you brush, don’t go into autopilot; take a more mindful approach to brushing, giving it your full attention.
Don’t Brush Fluoride Off Just Yet
Clearly, fluoride can be dangerous in high doses. But the amount in toothpaste and drinking water is far less than this. Generally speaking, if you have good dental hygiene and practice a rigorous routine in that you avoid sugary drinks, brush and floss daily (in the right way) and drink plenty of water, you could probably get away with omitting fluoride. However, if your teeth are on the way to decay-ville, then avoiding fluoride might not be the best idea.
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