Sealants are thin coatings dentists paint on the chewing (occlusal) surfaces of back teeth. They can also be placed on the lingual (tongue side) surfaces of front teeth. The thin coating forms “physical barriers” on the grooves of teeth and is an effective, safe, and painless way to prevent future tooth decay and cavities.
Tooth sealants are typically applied to permanent teeth that do not have cavities yet. The coating helps keep food particles, acid, and cavity-causing bacteria out of teeth surfaces. In extremely rare cases, they can also be placed on teeth with minor cavities, but dental fillings are often recommended instead to prevent further decay.
Sealants reduce the risk of decay in back teeth by up to 80 percent, especially in children and adolescence.”
Sealants are particularly useful in protecting developing children against cavities. Adults are also candidates for sealants, but they receive treatment less commonly. Some people have deeper grooves on their back teeth, which puts them at a higher risk for dental decay. This is because the areas are hard to reach and clean with a traditional toothbrush.
The earlier they 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.
As soon as your child's permanent teeth grow in completely, dentists can seal them, which protects his or her teeth against cavities from the start.
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, dentists recommend placing pit-and-fissure sealants on the biting surfaces of baby molars and permanent molars (back teeth) in children because:
Children between 6 and 11 years of age, who do not have sealants, are about three times more likely to develop cavities.
Sealants are separated into two main categories, including glass ionomers and composite resins, based on the reaction that occurs when they are applied to teeth:
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 years to come. However, dentists typically only place glass ionomer on primary teeth.
Advantages: Since glass ionomers release fluoride, they are effective in reducing the chance of tooth decay by up to 35 percent. This is because fluoride contains antibacterial properties, which keeps teeth strong.
They also have a chance of leakage over time. Although, 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.
Disadvantages: The main disadvantage of glass ionomer sealants is that they have a lower retention rate than composite resin, which means they require more upkeep. Although, glass ionomer sealants provide better protection against caries than composite resin does.
Composite resin sealants are set through a polymerization reaction and the use of a dental curing light. They consist of a plastic compound and ceramic, which blends in with the color of natural teeth.
Advantages: Composite resin materials are strong and protect against cavities for a long period of time. In fact, they have a higher retention rate than glass ionomers and last 5 to 10 years. The material is also the same color as teeth, so it mimics the appearance of your natural teeth.
Disadvantages: The main disadvantage of composite resin sealants is that they do not have acid-base bonding properties and do not release any fluoride. When the sealant wears down over time, which is inevitable, they do not protect against cavities as well as glass ionomer does.
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 is a three-step process:
Step 1 — Sealants are direct restorations, which means they are made inside of the mouth and not in a dental laboratory. First, the dentist cleans and dries the tooth to prepare it for treatment.
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 either chemically (glass ionomer) or with a special dental light (composite resin). Both types of sealant materials come in a liquid form.
Since dental sealants are a preventive dentistry treatment that protects teeth from cavities and decay, some dental insurance plans cover part or all of the cost. The prices below reflect the cost of treatment without insurance:
Glass Ionomer Sealants
$30-$75 (per tooth)
Composite Resin Sealants
$30-$75 (per tooth)
Dental Sealants, www.ada.org/en/member-center/oral-health-topics/dental-sealants.
Hollins, Carole. Basic Guide to Dental Procedures. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.
Morales-Chavez, Mc., and Zc. Nualart-Grollmus. “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, doi:10.4317/jced.51688.
“Sealants.” Mouth Healthy TM, www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/s/sealants.
Syrbu, John DDS. The Complete Pre-Dental Guide to Modern Dentistry. 2013.