Dentistry
Cosmetic
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Updated on January 6, 2023
6 min read

Dental Sealants: Cavity Prevention for Children & Teens

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What are Dental Sealants?

Tooth sealants are thin coatings dentists apply to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth (occlusal surfaces). They can also be applied to the lingual surfaces of the front teeth (tongue side surfaces).

Sealants are an effective, safe, and painless way to prevent cavities. The thin plastic coating protects the grooves of teeth from:

  • Food particles
  • Bacteria
  • Acid

Tooth sealants are typically applied to permanent teeth that do not have cavities yet. In some cases, sealants may also be applied to baby teeth, but this is less common.

In extremely rare cases, they can also be placed on teeth with staining or minor cavities, but cavity fillings are often recommended instead to prevent further decay.

Benefits of Dental Sealants

There are several benefits to using sealants. These include: 

  • Reduce the risk of tooth decay
  • Does not require injections or drilling
  • Does not dissolve in saliva
  • Safe
  • Painless

Many people are worried about the toxicity of sealants because they contain compounds that turn into BPA on contact with saliva.

However, the highest level of BPA reported in saliva from tooth sealants is more than 50,000 times lower than the LD50 values reported for BPA. Toxic exposure to BPA from dental materials is low and poses no health risk.

At What Age Are Dental Sealants Most Effective?

Sealants are most useful in preventing cavities in a child's newly erupted permanent teeth, including the premolars, first molars, and second molars.

The earlier sealants are placed, the better. A child’s first permanent molar (back tooth) erupts around age 6, and the second permanent molar erupts around age 12. However, teenagers (13+) are also good candidates for sealants.

Adults may also be candidates for sealants. Some adults have deeper grooves in their back teeth, which puts them at a higher risk for tooth decay

These areas are hard to reach and clean with a traditional toothbrush. Sealants may be recommended in these cases.

Are Sealants Necessary?

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, dentists recommend placing pit-and-fissure sealants on the biting surfaces of teeth in children because:

  • Sealing the grooves of the teeth effectively helps prevent cavities
  • Sealants stop the spread of partially developed “microcavities" early on

Children between 6 and 11 years of age who do not have tooth sealants are about 3x more likely to develop cavities.

Dental Sealant Materials

Sealants are separated into two categories, including glass ionomers and composite resins, based on the reaction that occurs when they are applied to teeth:

Glass Ionomer

Glass ionomer sealants undergo an acid-base reaction as they set on a patient’s teeth. They also release fluoride, which helps strengthen tooth enamel for many years.

Dentists typically only apply glass ionomer sealants to primary teeth.

Pros

Glass ionomer sealants release fluoride, making them very effective in reducing the chance of dental decay by up to 35 percent. Fluoride contains antibacterial properties that help keep the teeth strong.

Glass ionomer sealants have a chance of leakage over time. However, the fluoride ions in glass ionomers still provide protection after leaks by mineralizing tooth enamel.

Eventually, the fluoride runs out, but the enamel’s health and strength increase. Glass ionomer materials also blend in with the color of natural teeth.

Cons 

The main disadvantage of glass ionomer sealants is that they have a lower retention rate than composite resin, which means they require more upkeep. However, glass ionomer sealants provide better protection against cavities than composite resin sealants.

Composite Resin

Composite resin sealants are applied with a dental curing light. These sealants consist of a plastic compound that blends in with the color of your natural teeth.

Pros 

Composite resin materials are strong and protect against cavities for a long time. They have a higher retention rate than glass ionomers and last 5 to 10 years. The material is also the same color as your natural teeth.

Cons 

The main disadvantage of composite resin sealants is that they do not have acid-base bonding properties and do not release fluoride.

When the sealant wears down over time, which is inevitable, it does not protect against cavities as well as glass ionomer sealants do.

How are Sealants Placed on Teeth?

Sealants are direct restorations, which means they are made directly inside the mouth and not in a dental laboratory. Treatment is completed within one office visit and is relatively simple, fast, and painless. Patients can return to normal dietary and lifestyle habits within minutes after the treatment is complete.

The procedure consists of three steps:

Step 1 

First, the dentist cleans the tooth to prepare it for treatment. They may place cotton rolls, suctions, or other devices to keep the area dry. 

Step 2 

An acidic gel is placed into the grooves on the tooth. After 20 to 30 seconds, the etchant functions to open up tiny pores on the enamel surface that the sealant bonds to.

Step 3 

Next, the dentist rinses out the acidic gel and dries the tooth again. Then they place the sealant material into the grooves of the patient’s tooth. Lastly, they cure the sealant chemically (glass ionomer) or with a special dental light (composite resin). Both types of sealant materials come in a liquid form.

How Long Do Sealants Last?

Sealants can protect teeth from decay for up to 10 years. However, you’ll still need to visit the dentist to check for chipping or wear.

Sealants protect against 80 percent of cavities for 2 years. They will continue to protect against 50 percent of cavities for up to 4 years.

Dental sealants can be removed or replaced for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • Improper placement
  • Damaged sealants
  • Damage from certain food and drinks
  • Everyday wear 
  • Cavity under the sealants 

Your dentist can replace sealants as necessary.

Benefits of Oral hygiene (Even With Dental Sealants)

Although dental sealants help prevent tooth decay, it’s not guaranteed protection. For the best possible protection, it’s important to maintain oral hygiene. 

Food particles, tooth brushing, and other abrasions can also wear down dental sealants. Here are some ways to take care of your sealants:1,8

  • Brush with gentle bristles and fluoride toothpaste
  • Brush all surfaces of the tooth to avoid plaque buildup
  • Floss regularly
  • Use an antiseptic mouthwash
  • Avoid chewing on hard surfaces
  • Avoid sticky or chewy food

How Much Do Dental Sealants Cost?

The cost of glass ionomer sealants without insurance is between $30 and $75 per tooth. The cost of composite resin sealants without insurance is between $30 and $75 per tooth.

Since dental sealants are a preventive dental treatment that protects teeth from cavities and decay, some dental insurance plans cover part or all of the cost.

Summary

Dental sealants create a barrier that protects teeth from decay. They’re most effective for children and teens, but adults can still benefit from them.

The two main types of sealants are glass ionomer and composite resin. Both have pros and cons.

Sealants are safe and can last up to 10 years. They cannot be applied in between the teeth, so cavities can still form in these areas. 

It is essential to floss your teeth daily and brush them twice a day, even if you have sealants.

Last updated on January 6, 2023
8 Sources Cited
Last updated on January 6, 2023
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Dental Sealant FAQs.” CDC.gov, 2019.
  2. Dental Sealants.” ADA.org.
  3. Hollins, C. “Basic Guide to Dental Procedures.” John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.
  4. Morales-Chávez, M., and Zacy-Carola N., “Retention of a Resin-Based Sealant and a Glass Ionomer Used as a Fissure Sealant in Children with Special Needs.” Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry, 2014.
  5. Kashbour, W., et al. “Pit and fissure sealants versus fluoride varnishes for preventing dental decay in the permanent teeth of children and adolescents.” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 2020.
  6. Sealants.” Mouth Healthy TM.
  7. Syrbu, J. The Complete Pre-Dental Guide to Modern Dentistry. 2013.
  8. Care for Dental Sealants.” Calabasas Pediatric Dentistry & Orthodontics.
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