If you were raised in the United States, you’ve most likely been told your entire life that fluoride helps prevent cavities. And we’re not going to tell you any different.
What we are going to tell you, though, is that too much fluoride is not a good thing and that there are other effective ways to keep your teeth and gums happy and healthy.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring compound that, depending on where you live, can have a profound effect upon your body. Excessive amounts of natural fluoride in drinking water can cause dental and skeletal fluorosis in local populations.
Dental fluorosis occurs when children under the age of six ingest too much fluoride, which interferes with the formation of tooth enamel, and presents itself, at best, as barely noticeable whiter spots on teeth or, at worst, as dark brown stains and pits.
Dental fluorosis was first identified in the early 1900s, when a dentist named Frederick McKay began to study the population of a Colorado town where 90% of the residents had brown-stained teeth. He also found that their teeth were surprisingly resistant to tooth decay.
It was soon discovered that the culprit was natural fluoride in the drinking water, which sparked similar studies in areas around the world where natural fluoride was prevalent. Before long, a condition called skeletal fluorosis was detected among older residents of these areas, and it was much more serious than the dental variant.
Caused by long-term exposure to excessive fluoride, skeletal fluorosis actually changes the structure of bones and causes calcification of ligaments, which can lead to pain, bent limbs and limited mobility.
But what Dr. McKay and others took away from these observations was that, in moderation, fluoride could conceivably be used to prevent tooth decay.
In 1945, the city of Grand Rapids, MI became the first city to fluoridate its water supply and, after just 11 years, was able to announce a 60% decrease in cavities among children born after the water was fluoridated.
These findings, and others like them, prompted communities across the U.S., and the world, to begin fluoridating their drinking water. At the same time, use of toothpastes and rinses containing fluoride were gaining in popularity and becoming more widespread.
Even though fluoride is not a nutrient and serves only the purpose of cavity prevention when introduced into the body, people became convinced it should be a necessary part of their everyday lives.
Today, people are not only getting fluoride in their drinking water and dental care products, but the shift in America towards processed foods is also causing people to ingest fluoride any time they eat food that was refined in locations that have fluoridated water.
In 2010, the CDC released a report stating that 41% of U.S. adolescents showed some form of dental fluorosis and that cases of adolescent fluorosis had gone up during the final decade of the last century, according to surveys that were performed at the beginning and end of that time period.
Although the bulk of those cases of dental fluorosis were very mild to mild (only 3.6 were moderate to severe), it was enough to prompt both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency to release new guidelines in 2011 that lowered the acceptable amount of fluoride in drinking water.
No matter what side of the fluoride debate experts fall on, everyone can agree on one thing: a sensible diet is the number-one guard against tooth decay. Avoiding sugars and processed foods in favor of a vitamin-, calcium- and fiber-rich diet can go a long way in creating a naturally healthy smile.
Good oral hygiene is necessary, as well, but can be highly effective without the use of fluoride. Regular flossing and brushing with an all-natural toothpaste is an excellent way to keep cavities at bay, your teeth white, your gums healthy and your breath fresh.
While fluoride has been shown to reduce tooth decay, those statistics are commonly associated with places and time periods in which good oral hygiene was not being practiced.
And although we’ve covered what we know can happen when we’re exposed to too much fluoride, we haven’t talked about the popular theories surrounding other negative effects fluoride has on the body.
So our advice is to err on the side of caution and remember that it’s never advisable to introduce anything into your body when (a) there’s no real need and (b) you aren’t 100% sure what its effects will be.