What can you do on your own to prevent or stop decay—and the resulting problems such as tooth sensitivity, fractures, and abscesses? The possibilities are as near as your local drug and grocery stores. These products work, but your dentist can prescribe others that may be more effective, depending on your problem.
1. Acid neutralizers. We’ve discussed pH—a measure of acidity—and the damage that acid can do. Patients have asked me about brushing or rinsing with drugstore hydrogen peroxide and baking soda to counteract acidity. It can be helpful. Baking soda is a classic antacid, nonabrasive, and therefore safe for the surface of your teeth.
But it’s an old-fashioned solution, and we have stronger ones today. Your dentist can prescribe a high-pH toothpaste and mouth rinse, as I do. That stacks the deck in your favor, which is exactly what we want to do in the battle between
demineralization (erosion of tooth enamel) and remineralization of your teeth.
2. Fluoride. Everyone knows this chemical is in most toothpastes, some mouthwashes, and in the drinking water of most cities. It’s there for a good reason. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by actually hardening the teeth! So important is it that we dentists also offer fluoride applications for patients who are at risk for decay—adults and children alike, though fluoride is not recommended for children under two.
I prescribe a toothpaste with a concentration of 5,000 parts per million (ppm) of fluoride for my patients. The typical over-the-counter brands have concentrations of 1,000 to 1,450 ppm. The added concentration has helped decrease decay and sensitivity for me as well as my patients.
Can you get too much fluoride? In children under eight, too much of it can cause fluorosis—a mottling of the teeth, ranging from mild to severe, which is why the amount of fluoride in drinking water is regulated. Fluorosis can only
occur during tooth development, so if you have all your adult teeth, you’re safe. It is not a significant risk for children exposed to normal concentrations in their dental-care products and drinking water.
Though fluoride is positive for dental health, as of 2014 less than half of people served by public water supplies in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Louisiana, Hawaii, and New Hampshire received fluoridated water, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If your locale lacks fluoridated water, I suggest you speak with your dentist about getting a topical fluoride you can apply at home to protect your teeth against decay.
3. Xylitol. What do you know—a pleasant recommendation from the dentist for a change! Xylitol (the x is pronounced as a z), which is used in some products as a substitute for sugar, is derived from wood and corn husks. (It’s also produced by our bodies in small amounts.) It has the same sweetening power as sugar but one-third fewer calories and is suitable for diabetics as well as dieters since it doesn’t raise your insulin level.
Xylitol is found in some sugar-free chewing gums. For patients who enjoy gum, I recommend up to seven pieces a day. Why? Because xylitol doesn’t feed bacteria as sugar does. Unfed, the germs die, and your teeth are then free of the acids that cause decay. Even better, xylitol actually remineralizes the teeth, making them harder and more decay-resistant.
If chewing gum isn’t for you, buy toothpaste, mouthwash, or mints with xylitol. Unfortunately, it’s five to six times more expensive than other sweeteners (such as sorbitol) and, for that reason, is not routinely used in over-the-counter dental-care products. But it can be found and is definitely worth the search. Ice Breakers® is a widely available, xylitol-sweetened brand of mouth refreshers. CariFree brand of toothpastes and rinses with xylitol are available through your dentist or online.
4. Calcium phosphate and hydroxyapatite to strengthen teeth. These two ingredients are naturally occurring minerals added to some toothpastes and other oral-care products to remineralize and harden the teeth. That’s right—they replenish the minerals in your teeth and actually strengthen them. Everyone’s dental needs are different, so do check with your dentist first to make sure these additives are okay for you to use.
If you are at high risk for tooth decay, the products you use on your teeth at home should contain all or some of the above additives. Choose the most effective preventive measures to save and restore your teeth so they will serve you for a lifetime!