Toothpaste 101: Fluoride vs. Fluoride-Free

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(Photo: iStock)

Although modern dentistry has come a long way, there is still a lot to know about when it comes to maintaining healthy oral hygiene — especially the kind of toothpaste we’re using. You might be making the most of whatever makes your teeth whiter, but there is more to toothpaste than meets the eye. Or in this case, mouth.

Brushing, flossing and gargling might be crucial steps for a clean mouth, but happy smiles boil down to our toothpaste. From the "all-in-one" that reduces tarter, improves gum health and prevents tooth decay, to the "whitening" agents that promise a radiant smile one beam short of a ‘ting,’ oral dentifrices offer various benefits for every need.

But with shelves stocked with every paste imaginable, it’s essential to understand the effectiveness of its "clinically proven" formulations by brushing up on the most crucial ingredient found in every toothpaste — fluoride. While the American Dental Association touts fluoride as the best naturally occurring mineral to help prevent cavities, there is also the fluoride-free option.

What is fluoride?
As a primary ingredient in toothpastes for more than 60 years, the ADA suggests fluoride-containing pastes have a long range of benefits for a healthy mouth. Often called nature’s cavity fighter, fluoride is a mineral that strengthens tooth enamel by creating a protective barrier against the sugars that produce acid attacks and bacteria that cause tooth decay.

Touted an effective agent in healthy oral hygiene, fluoride fulfills two very important dental functions: reducing mineral loss and promoting the remineralization of enamel. But tooth decay doesn’t happen overnight, as dentists blame a lack of tending to the sticky, clear film that collects around our teeth and gums as the causative effect for breaking down the surface of our enamel. If left untreated, these bacteria not only overstay their visit by producing bad breath but cause holes known as cavities and can lead to gum disease.

These negative factors point to the importance of fluoride as the ADA suggests it also plays a big part in the repair and replenishing of lost calcium and phosphorous that keep teeth firm and hard.

Who can use a fluoride toothpaste?
While fluoride is relatively safe for all mouths in varying dosages, it should only be used by children ages 2 and up — and of course, in a pea-sized amount. When kids are still learning the do's and don'ts of proper oral hygiene, supervise them with the aid of a fluoride-free toothpaste. This will not only be a safe method in the case they swallow, but also won’t damage their tiny, growing teeth. When they're infants between the ages of six months to two years, use a fluoride-free option.

Though there has been controversial talk about its toxicity in both children and adults, renowned wellness guru, Dr. Andrew Weil writes in Prevention that claims against fluoride are highly exaggerated as it’s only toxic in large doses.

Who can use a fluoride-free toothpaste?
The ADA stands behind fluoride and states the only time to opt for toothpaste without fluoride is if you’re allergic or have a condition that counteracts with medicine. While several brands and companies like Burt’s Bees or Tom’s of Maine create effective formulas to support the option, its usage greatly depends on your diet and what exactly your mouth needs.

When considering fluoride-free, keep in mind the age of the brusher, their sensitivity to fluoride and the amount used. It’s been reported by the ADA that a high concentration of fluoride can cause “dental fluorosis” in children and certain adults, which permanently changes the appearance of teeth. CBS News reports two out of every five adolescents in the U.S. have the condition caused when high amounts of fluoride are ingested.

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Though common in early childhood, dental fluorosis can be difficult for those, especially children who are learning the difference between spitting and swallowing. As a result, this condition affects the look of teeth with small brown and white specks appearing on each tooth, while creating a rough enamel.

That said, only a physician or dentist can tell you whether switching toothpastes will benefit your oral health as every mouth is different. If you have a diet high in fluoridation through water or food, that too can play a factor in whether fluoride or fluoride-free toothpaste is a viable option for your oral health.