What is Fluoride and Why is it Important to Dental Health


Fluoride Serving patients of Erwin, Jonesborough, and Greeneville TN

Fluoride is a naturally occurring ionic compound of the element Fluorine. Since Fluorine is the thirteenth most abundant element in the earth’s crust, it is fairly common and present in most water and plants in varying, but usually small, amounts.

Since the 1950s, the United States government has made it a policy to make sure that most drinking water has fluoride in it at a quantity of about 1 part per million. This usually means that fluoride must be added to water – and filtered out where it is found in greater abundance. The government does this because of the demonstrated advantages that fluoride, in this particular concentration, offers oral health. What are these advantages?

Fluoride and dental health: a history

In 1901, a dental-school graduate named Frederick McKay decided to set up practice in Colorado Springs. He soon noticed an interesting phenomenon: a large percentage of his patients had discolored tooth enamel, with some showing only slight opaque white patches while others had a yellowish or brownish cast with brown-colored pits on their surface. Aside from the discoloration, he noticed that his patients had remarkably strong teeth that were largely free of cavities.

McKay began collecting reports of similar dental phenomena and tried to trace their source. Ultimately, he discovered that in areas where these unusually strong, cavity-free-but-stained teeth were common, the water supply had a very high concentration of fluoride. This soon became a cause for great concern since no one liked the idea of their drinking water staining their teeth – a condition that became known as dental fluorosis.

However, further investigation during the 1920s and 1930s revealed that staining happened only in those who were born and spent their early childhoods in these high-fluoride water areas. On the other hand, in regions where the water fluoride was between .05 and 1 part-per-million, teeth did not present severe staining, with fewer than 10 percent of those who drank it showing any stains at all (and most of those who experienced a discoloration only showed small, barely visible white patches). However, dental cavities in all these areas were far less prevalent than the national average. What’s more: the low cavity rate was even found in those who had come to these places from elsewhere, showing a connection between fluoride of about 1 part per million and stronger teeth.

In the mid-1940s, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Newburgh, New York (cities that had almost no naturally occurring fluoride in their water) agreed to have fluoride added to their water and have the results studied. These results were startling: discoloration was practically negligible, but cavities in Grand Rapids dropped by up to 43 percent within six years (Newburgh had similar results). By the 1950s, fluoridation of drinking water became national policy, and repeated studies continue to show the benefits in the form of stronger teeth.

How does fluoride affect dental health?

Essentially, cavities are caused by acid wearing holes into the enamel of teeth. This occurs because the mouth contains a bacteria called Streptococcus mutans. Streptococcus mutans produces lactic acid, which it does by metabolizing chemicals called “sugars”, including sucrose (present in actual sugar), fructose (a chemical similar to sucrose found in fruits), glucose (present in breads and other starches), and lactose (in milk and dairy products).

Eating most foods, then, will lead to the creation of lactic acid, and this causes tooth enamel to demineralize. However, this demineralization is countered by “remineralization,” whereby the enamel is rebuilt and strengthened by ions of calcium and phosphate. These ions are created by the body and carried in saliva. Fluoride helps with this in two ways. First, fluoride is considered a chemical base that neutralizes acid. Second, fluoride encourages these calcium and phosphate ions to bind with tooth enamel.

Fluoride’s cavity-fighting properties are topical and, therefore, do not depend on ingestion. In other words, contact between fluoride and teeth alone is enough to cause benefits. In most of Europe, fluoride is not added to water supplies but is added to salt and put in toothpaste, with similar results as the United States. Fluoridation of water shows no documented ill effects, and it affects neither the taste, smell, or clarity of water.

Benefits of fluoride

American drinking water is treated with fluoride in such a way as to give it the ideal concentration (around 1 part per million), which means reducing it in some water – like what used to be present in Colorado Springs in 1901 – and adding it where needed. At this ideal concentration, fluoride helps protect against cavities and is an excellent aid to overall dental health.

General Dentistry in Greeneville, Jonesborough, and Erwin in Tennessee

To learn more about the services we offer, call the office of Tusculum Dental Care today at (423) 639-7575 to schedule a consultation,