By now you (hopefully!) know the basics of healthy teeth: brush twice a day, floss at least once a day, and visit your dentist on the reg. That’s it, right? Not quite. You also need to pay attention to the food you eat, the drinks you sip, and the products you use—all of which can contribute to demineralization, or the break down of your tooth enamel.
Now, before you start to freak out (what did I drink at lunch?! how do I know if my enamel is okay?!), some good news: You can actually reverse dental damage through a process called remineralization. Maintaining the health of your teeth is a balancing act between decay and repair, known as the demineralization and remineralization lifecycle, says Jonathan B. Levine, D.M.D., oral health expert and dental specialist at JBL in New York City.
Here, dentists explain if and why you should remineralize your teeth, plus how to do it.
So, what is teeth demineralization?
On a daily basis, teeth are bombarded by pathogenic bacteria (bacteria that cause disease) from external sources, acids from food and drinks, and toxins from the environment, says Levine. Together, these guys break down the enamel (the hard, protective outermost layer of teeth) and strip your teeth of essential minerals—a process called, as you’ve probably guessed, demineralization.
Demineralization weakens your enamel (as does your happy hour habit), increasing sensitivity, and making it easier for acid, bacteria, and toxins to get even deeper into your teeth and wreak havoc (think: decay, cavities). But you don’t just snack on an orange and wake up the next day with troubled teeth. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—and that’s due largely in part to enamel’s protective strength. It’s the hardest substance in your body, says Levine.
Still, with enough continued exposure to acid and bacteria, in addition to the natural demineralization that occurs as you age, minerals will begin to dissolve out of the enamel, says Brian Kantor, D.D.S., cosmetic dentist in New York City. And unlike other tissues in your body, enamel is not living (it’s mostly just calcium and phosphates) and cannot regenerate by itself. But the human body is smart—so smart that it naturally strengthens and patches broken areas of your enamel through your saliva (more on that below).
Unless you’re a dentist or dental pro, it can be hard to detect demineralization, which is (one of the many reasons) why it’s important to see your dentist regularly. If your teeth start to feel rough or develop little white spots, odds are your chompers have lost a lot of their protective barrier and, unfortunately, saliva might not be able to keep up. In this case, you’ll need to give your enamel some additional TLC. Which brings you to…
What is teeth remineralization?
Just as it sounds, remineralization is the process of restoring important minerals in the enamel that were lost during demineralization, says Levine. And, as you just read, it can be done both naturally and DIY.
Either way, the goal of the remineralization process remains the same: to have stronger, more resilient teeth that can resist breakdown. “The direct benefit is less sensitive teeth, stronger teeth to resist bacteria, healthier mouths, no oral pain, and less need for the dentist drill or the root canal specialist’s microscope,” says Levine.
If you don’t remineralize your teeth or enamel, it can lead to increased sensitivity to cold (think: frozen treats, iced water) and air and, after enough time, decay. If this decay continues, it can move deeper within the tooth, potentially causing pain, infection, and increased risk of lost teeth, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). So, uh, pretty major consequences.
The main player in this repair process (and in protecting your teeth overall)? Saliva, because it continually cleans food and bacteria from your teeth, says Kantor. Think of saliva as your mouth’s on-call cleanup crew, ready to wash away any leftover bits of food and start replenishing your enamel with calcium and phosphate. In addition to its role as a “constant source” of these minerals, saliva also helps neutralize acids in your mouth, preventing further demineralization, according to research in the International Journal of Nanomedicine. But saliva can only do so much and sometimes demineralization can occur at a faster rate than your saliva can remineralize your teeth, says Kantor.
So, how do you remineralize your teeth?
Whether you remineralize your teeth at home or at the dentist’s office, the process will likely involve fluoride (as do lots of the best whitening toothpastes). That’s because fluoride joins forces with calcium and phosphate to create an even stronger barrier against decay called fluoroapatite, according to the ADA.
Remineralization at the dentist’s office:
In the dental office, there are several different options depending on your situation and your dentist’s preference. Those include fluoride treatments, sealants, or remineralization products (like MI paste), which can be applied topically to protect teeth, says Levine.
Fluoride Treatments in a dental office are in the form of a mouth rinse, gel, or foam and are applied to teeth after a cleaning, according to the ADA. The fluoride is more highly concentrated than that in an OTC toothpaste or mouth wash. The treatment is applied to teeth for a few minutes, and afterward, you may be asked to refrain from eating or drinking for 30 minutes to allow time for your teeth to absorb the fluoride. These treatments can be given every three, six, or 12 months depending on your oral health or severity of decay.
Sealants are a thin coating (usually plastic) painted on enamel to cover and protect against decay, according to the ADA. The process is painless and takes only minutes to complete at your dental check-ups. Sealants are often applied as a child when you get your molars at age 6 and 12 and last for several years. Adults often benefit from getting sealants reapplied when they show signs of early decay to prevent further damage.
MI paste is a cream that is applied to teeth containing calcium, phosphate, and a milk protein that remineralizes by binding to dental plaque, says Levine. MI Paste also encourages the uptake of fluoride to strengthen teeth. Treatment involves 3-4 short visits (30 minutes or less), each a week apart.
Remineralization at home:
You’re already very familiar with the product you need to remineralize your teeth: It’s toothpaste! But not just any ole toothpaste (and not activated charcoal toothpaste, either). You should look for one with ingredients like fluoride to strengthen the enamel and potassium nitrate to reduce sensitivity. Levine recommends Twice Premium Early Bird Twilight Toothpaste and Sensodyne Essential Care Toothpastes as both contain the power duo.