What is tooth decay?
First of all, it’s incredibly common. The NHS estimates that in England alone, around one in every three adults have some level of tooth decay.
Decay occurs when acid from everyday sugars and bacteria wear down the enamel and dentine of the tooth. When plaque is left untreated, the acid wears away a painful hole, or cavity, which is what sends most of us running to the dentist for a filling, root canal – or if it goes ignored long enough – a tooth pulling.
But how does decay even begin? Dr Catherine Rutland, Senior Dental Advisor at Denplan, says: “Tooth enamel is incredibly tough and can withstand about five acid attacks a day, but it’s easy to weaken enamel if you’re someone who likes to snack frequently, as your mouth never gets a chance to recover.”
Can decay be reversed?
Between oil pulling (swishing coconut oil around your mouth), homemade toothpastes, and even claims that diet alone can fix a decayed tooth, the internet is full of weird and often unlikely remedies for decay. But is there any truth to reversing the damage naturally?
First, there are two levels of decay to be aware of. Matthew Lloyd, dentist and clinical director of WhiteWash Laboratories says: “Tooth decay is only reversible when it affects the enamel of the tooth. Once decay progresses to the dentine below the enamel, it is irreversible.”
If your dentist spots the decay in its very early stages, you might be able to avoid the drill. Fluoride varnish can be applied to help prevent damage from progressing past the enamel, while also ‘remineralising’ the tooth. Dentine, however, forms most of the tooth, covering the central ‘pulp.’ This layer can be highly sensitive to pain, explaining that dull or sharp ache which tells you that something is up.
Dr Sameer Patel, clinical director at Elleven adds: ‘There is no evidence to date that tooth decay can be reversed, or that oil pulling can reverse tooth decay. Prevention is the key to avoid damage.”
So what can you do to keep your pearly whites free of decay?
Dr Lloyd says: “It is much better to prevent tooth decay in the first place by following a good oral hygiene routine, which includes implementing the correct brushing, flossing and using mouthwash, combined with dietary advice.”
Dr Rutland adds: “The best way to help prevent tooth decay is to brush for two minutes twice a day with a suitable strength fluoride toothpaste, visit your dentist as often as they recommend, and follow a healthy, low-sugar diet.”
The British Dental Health Foundation recommends using toothpaste with 1350ppm to 1500ppm of fluoride from age three and up.
Dr Rutland says: “It’s best to stick to three healthy meals a day with two healthy snacks in between. Keep sugary biscuits, cakes, sweets and fizzy drinks as occasional treats to be enjoyed during a main meal. Raw vegetable sticks, nuts, and cheese are tooth-friendly snack options.”
Another option via your dentist, called a ‘pit and fissure sealant,’ might help give your molars an extra wall of defence against acids. Chewing sugar-free gum after a meal can also help create more saliva to wash all the bad stuff away.
Overall, regular visits to the dentist, a healthy diet and oral hygiene routine are much easier (and pain-free) methods of keeping your mouth strong and healthy – long before decay takes hold.
Dr Catherine Rutland, Dr Matthew Lloyd and Dr Sameer Patel do not endorse any specific brand or product and have no relationship with the sponsor.