Fluoride is something most of us are aware of, but is fluoride good for your teeth? Every time you choose a toothpaste or toothbrush, options with added fluoride are often in the mix. You might even learn about fluoride because you live in an area where the water is fluoridated.
Picking the best products for your dental health and understanding which ingredients do what can be confusing sometimes, so we're breaking down everything you need to know about fluoride. What it is, where it comes from, and how it can help your teeth. Fluoride also gets some negative press, so we're also covering how to make sure you're getting the right amount of fluoride to avoid potential adverse health effects. To find great savings on top brands once you've done your research, head to our guide on the best electric toothbrushes.
We've asked Dr. David Rice DDS, who shared his expertise on fluoride and whether it's good for your teeth. Dr. Rice has 25 years of experience in dentistry and is the founder of igniteDDS (opens in new tab), and regularly travels the world to share his knowledge with young dentists. He also runs a restorative and implant practice (opens in new tab) in East Amherst, NY.
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What is fluoride?
"Fluoride is a naturally occurring element in most drinking sources. It's also a key ingredient to the best kinds of toothpaste you can use," Dr. Rice told Live Science. Indeed, you will often see fluoride listed as a critical component in lots of your everyday dental care products, including toothpaste and mouthwash. Fluoride is sometimes added to tap water to benefit communities via other means than simply through proper dental care.
But what actually is fluoride? The CDC defines fluoride as "a mineral that occurs naturally and is released from rocks into the soil, water, and air." Most water sources will contain a certain level of fluoride; in some countries, fluoride levels will be low, while others will be higher. Both ends of the spectrum can cause public health issues because consuming too much fluoride is also potentially harmful, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in new tab).
The first city in the US to add fluoride to drinking water was Grand Rapids, MI, where the local government decided to add the element to their drinking water over 75 years ago. The city held a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary in January 2020, with Mayor Rosalynn Bliss (opens in new tab) telling reporters, "Seventy-five years ago we took a chance on putting fluoride in our water, and we continue to do things today to be a leader in many aspects of our utilities. This is a great day to recognize Grand Rapids as a leader, and 75 years of fluoridating our water." According to the American Water Works Association (opens in new tab), the process is estimated to cost around $0.72 per person annually, with each dollar spent saving approximately $40 worth of dental treatment
Is fluoride good for your teeth?
"Fluoride has long been documented to help fight cavities," said Dr. Rice. "Today's best toothpastes contain stannous fluoride," he added. The primary benefit of fluoride is fighting tooth decay. Fluoride protects your teeth in several ways, which are different for children and adults. As such, the decision to add fluoride to tap water is usually taken by local government and health advisors who have found that adding the substance to people's everyday water source may improve their oral health, and decrease their risk of tooth decay over time, according to a report by the British Association for the Study of Community Dentistry (opens in new tab). This is particularly true for disadvantaged communities for whom access to dentists can be more limited than for others.
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Benefits of fluoride for children
Research from the Journal of Dentistry (opens in new tab) has found that fluoride helps children develop stronger enamel. When teeth are forming, the enamel mixes with fluoride, which increases its strength and durability. This means that children who have access to fluoride in their drinking water and dental care products may be less likely to experience dental problems such as cavities as they grow older.
Benefits of fluoride for adults
If you've grown up with access to fluoride, then your teeth should already be more robust than they would have been otherwise. But the benefits of fluoride don't stop there. When fluoride mixes with your saliva, it helps prevent sugars and other plaque-forming debris from lingering on the surface of your teeth, according to a study published by the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia & Herzegovina (opens in new tab). By reducing plaque build-up on your teeth, fluoride can help combat common conditions such as gum disease, cavities, and tooth loss.
What are the adverse effects of fluoride?
The benefits of fluoride come with some potential negative effects. Most of these come down to overexposure to fluoride. This excess fluoride can often be found in communities with too much fluoride in the water or air because of environmental or ecological factors. As the world's climate changes, fluoride levels in some areas fluctuate more than usual.
Overexposure to fluoride can also come from swallowing products that contain the element. For example, it can be an issue for young children who swallow their toothpaste instead of spitting it out. That's why dentists will always teach parents and children to brush and spit. You don't need to rinse after brushing, but making sure you spit out any products that are enriched with fluoride (aside from clean tap water) will help ensure your exposure to fluoride stays within safe levels. Dr. Rice said, "like everything in life, there is the 'too much of a good thing.' Using a pea-sized amount of fluoride only will help give you every benefit without any negative effects."
According to the CDC (opens in new tab), consuming or being exposed to too much fluoride can negatively affect people's health. It can make people's bones more fragile and brittle and can increase the risk of breaking bones. Some research on animals has also found that very high levels of fluoride can affect fertility.
People are often also concerned that fluoride can be linked to some cancers. To date, researchers have not been able to directly link fluoride to an elevated risk of developing cancer, whether the exposure came from naturally occurring fluoride or fluoridated water.