Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally in many foods and water. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by making your enamel more resistant to acid attacks. Every day, your enamel (the protective outer covering of your tooth) gains and loses minerals. You lose minerals (demineralization) when acids that are formed from bacteria, sugars, and plaque attack your mouth. You gain minerals (remineralization) when you consume food and water that contain fluoride, phosphate, and calcium. Tooth decay is a result of too much demineralization without enough remineralization.
Fluoride strengthens teeth and reduces your risk of cavities by approximately 25%. Fluoride bonds to areas of decay and attracts other minerals, like calcium, to the area. Fluoride stimulates the production of fluorapatite, a type of tooth enamel that is highly resistant to acids and bacteria. Fluoride cannot reverse cavities, but it can slow the rate at which they develop.
While fluoride can be harmful in large quantities, it is difficult to reach toxic levels due to the low amount of fluoride in over-the-counter products like toothpastes and mouth rinses. For young children, Dr. Mary Rose recommends using a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste at each brushing. Children need to spit out rather than swallowing the toothpaste. Dr. Mary Rose also suggests not giving fluoride-containing dietary supplements to children under 6 months of age.
Adults can benefit from fluoride especially if you have dry mouth, gum disease, history of tooth decay, or you have crowns, bridges, braces, or removable partial dentures.