From the time your baby’s first teeth appear, their teeth should be brushed. Infants can have their teeth brushed with a soft brush designed for babies and plain water. No toothpaste is necessary and in fact should be avoided until the child reaches the age of one (and some research says two). This is because 95% of all dentifrice (toothpaste) has added fluoride, and since young children can swallow part or all of the toothpaste, fluoride can cause problems. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
Back in the 1950s, when fluoride was first being introduced in toothpaste and in water, people were not sure whether or not it was a good thing. Now, however, with the advantage of time, we can easily see from the reduction in the rate of tooth decay that it has, indeed, been helpful. The process of adding fluoride to water and toothpaste is based upon sound and robust scientific research. And it’s hard to argue with success!
Fluoride concentrations are reported in parts per million (ppm), and most scientific data show that concentrations of 0.7 – 1.0 ppm are safe and effective. The toothpaste you use will tell you the concentration in that tube, usually in the active ingredients. Water is fluoridated to a similar amount. In fact, fluoride occurs naturally in water. The most common form of fluoride is hexafluorocilicic acid, which breaks down into water and sand. It can be obtained as the by-product of other chemical processes, and is readily found in nature.
Oral bacteria produces acid as a waste product in the consumption of leftover food particles in the mouth. This acid compromises the mineralization of the enamel on the teeth, allowing decay to start and progress. Fluoride not only helps prevent decay, but also aids in the remineralization of the teeth. It can actually repair the damage the bacteria has done! And since all mouths contain these bacteria, all people with teeth can benefit from fluoride, at least in their toothpaste.
Now, back to the problems that can be caused by too much fluoride. In scientific studies done on children, only about 3% of them show any detrimental effects from too much fluoride. This damage is called fluorosis, a discoloration of the teeth, either with white patches or in excessive cases brown spots. This is why it is important to teach children not to swallow the toothpaste when they brush their teeth.
There was a study done in 2006 that stated that fluoridation increased the chances of osteosarcoma (tumors in bones), but there have been no other studies that have shown the same results. In fact, the authors of the study admit to bias in their research, so without further proof of the claim (and it’s been nine years since the study was done), it is safe to assume that fluoride does not increase incidents of osteosarcoma.
We consume fluoride all the time. For instance, tea may have more ppm than fluoridated drinking water, yet no claims are made that tea causes the problems attributed to fluoride. Anecdotal evidence is not adequate to justify those claims. The National Institutes of Health supports the fluoridation of drinking water because they have sufficient technical and scientific training to actually read and interpret the data from the studies that have been done, and they believe that not only is fluoridation safe, it is also beneficial.
In addition to fluoride in toothpaste and drinking water, twice-yearly fluoride treatments done at the dental office can be very helpful for both children and adults in preventing tooth decay.
Your dentist or dental hygienist can answer any questions you might have regarding the benefits of fluoride.