oral care instruments and fluoride on blue background

Fluoride use is a controversial topic, with both sides offering scientific evidence to support their claims both for and against fluoride. As with most controversial issues, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

What Is Fluoride?

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral present in the ground of many geographic areas. This includes surface water sources, such as lakes and rivers, and most vegetation. Most people do not know of any context outside of dentistry in which fluoride works. Although, the mineral is also an important ingredient in biochemical reactions (science lab materials). In addition, scientists in California are currently working on incorporating this mineral into rechargeable batteries.

How Are We Exposed to Fluoride?

Fluoride is very prevalent in nature, so most people are exposed to it naturally in their food and water sources. Certain items, like black tea and wine, contain fluoride. We also use fluoride in dental care products, both over-the-counter and professional.

The use of fluoride is categorized into the following applications:

Systemic

Systemic fluoride means that you are ingesting it in some way. In general, you eat and drink fluoride that naturally occurs in foods and beverages. Many cities also add fluoride to their drinking water system to achieve the optimum level. However, not all do this, so you should check your specific municipality’s water report to learn about your own drinking water. Systemic fluoride intake puts fluoride in contact with various organs and tissues in the body.

Topical

Topical fluoride is a strictly dental term. By applying fluoride topically, you are putting the fluoride in direct contact with the teeth. This is a targeted application and use of the mineral. You apply fluoride topically every time you brush your teeth with a fluoride-containing toothpaste. Your dental hygienist likely uses a fluoride-containing polishing paste at the end of professional teeth cleanings. Patients in need of additional benefits from fluoride may also receive a professional fluoride treatment, which targets a high concentration of the mineral directly onto the teeth.

Why are Most Dentists Pro-Fluoride?

Fluoride makes teeth stronger. When the teeth are developing, systemic fluoride incorporates itself into tooth enamel, producing a more cavity-resistant shell for the teeth. Topical fluoride can stop cavities in their tracks. It also fights off acid erosion and tooth sensitivity. 

The Center for Disease Control calls community water fluoridation one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century. This is because drinking water with fluoride reduces cavities by about 25 percent. Preventing cavities saves families and the government millions of dollars in dental healthcare costs.

The use of fluoride to prevent tooth decay is supported by many different national and worldwide healthcare organizations. 

Why are Some People Anti-Fluoride?

You can have too much of a good thing. For example, at high levels, fluoride can cause serious health problems. In the U.S., most water supplies are closely regulated, so this is not something that would occur naturally. However, a small child would experience fluoride toxicity if he were to eat an entire tube of fluoridated toothpaste.

There are areas in the world where the fluoride in the groundwater reaches dangerously high levels and does cause damage to various organs. When someone receives too much fluoride, it can damage the bones, kidneys, teeth, and thyroid gland. Some studies suggest a problem with brain development in small children when exposed to high levels of fluoride, but more research is needed to confirm this.

What is the Safest Way to Use Fluoride?

The average person in the U.S. drinking city tap water, using fluoridated toothpaste twice daily (and not swallowing it), and seeing the dentist twice a year for professional teeth cleanings is in NO danger of receiving too much fluoride. As we discussed above, there are risks associated with both receiving too much and too little fluoride. Just how to people get the wrong amount of fluoride?

Too Much

You could get too much fluoride in a couple of different ways.

It naturally occurs at dangerously high levels in your geographic area, and your drinking source is a well. 

You should know what you’re drinking. If you don’t know, have your water tested to learn the amount of fluoride it contains. If it is higher than the optimal level, you should use a filtration system to remove the fluoride. Your dentist can prescribe fluoride supplements to make sure you are getting the correct amount of fluoride. 

You purchase and regularly use professional-strength fluoride products without your dentist’s supervision.

Some people can be a little fanatic and assume that if a little bit of something is good, then a whole lot must be better. With the advent of everything being available for purchase online, people can buy their own fluoride products and use them at home without a dentist’s supervision. The risk that you could be getting too much is high.

You do not completely spit out, but instead swallow fluoride-containing mouthwash and toothpaste.

This is, obviously, more common in young children. Monitor your child’s oral hygiene routine and make sure he or she completely spits out the toothpaste or mouthwash used on a daily basis.

Too Little

If you do not get the optimal level of fluoride, then you could be putting yourself at a higher risk for cavities, acid erosion, and sensitive teeth. Here are some of the ways people do not get enough fluoride.

  • You only drink bottled water.
  • You use fluoride-free toothpaste.
  • You use a reverse osmosis filtration system on your drinking water.

All of these scenarios give you zero fluoride, which is below optimal levels.

What’s the Takeaway on Fluoride?

  • Check your water supply. 
  • Use fluoridated toothpaste. 
  • See your dentist regularly. 
  • Watch your kids. 
  • Then rest easy.