IF YOU LOOK AT ANY tube of toothpaste with the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance, you’ll see fluoride listed as the active ingredient. Trace amounts of fluoride are also added to the drinking water in many communities to further promote strong and healthy teeth. But what is fluoride and how does it work?
A Brief History of Fluoride in Drinking Water
Colorado Springs at the turn of the 20th century. Dentists in the town encountered numerous cases of “Colorado brown stain” — tooth discoloration that, bizarrely, was connected to a lower rate of cavities. Today, we call that fluorosis. Eventually, they traced it back to the water supply and discovered naturally occurring fluoride to be the cause.
Dentists were curious to see whether it was possible to keep the cavity prevention without any of the staining by lowering the level of fluoride, and they were right! When fluoride was first added to the public water supply in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it reduced the rate of childhood dental caries by a whopping 60 percent, with no adverse effects except for occasional cases of mild fluorosis.
Today, more than half of the U.S. population lives in communities with fluoridated water, and the CDC considers community water fluoridation “1 of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century,” benefiting young and old, rich and poor alike. It’s similar to drinking milk with vitamin D, baking with enriched flour, or even using iodized salt.
Fluoride and Teeth
So how does fluoride actually protect teeth? It does it by helping to remineralize weakened tooth enamel and reverse the early signs of tooth decay. Brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste gives a topical benefit, while fluoride from foods and drinks serves as an ongoing benefit by becoming part of your saliva, where it can provide continual remineralization.