Is Fluoride Safe?

added on: January 2, 2020
Fluoride information from the Periodic table

It’s the question thousands of parents have begun asking themselves: is fluoride safe for kids? In the modern era, where natural is synonymous with better, a lot of parents are turning away from traditional means of oral hygiene (aka fluoride) in favor of more “organic” methods and products.

With such a large demand for natural dental products, the past five years have seen serious improvements in organic toothpaste with brands hello and The Natural Family Co. leading the movement. These brands often use the absence of fluoride as a selling-point since so many families are looking for fluoride alternatives. These organic products may be better than they were ten or fifteen years ago but are they really better than the naturally-occurring fluoride? And should parents try to steer their kids away from consuming fluoridated water or foods that contain high levels of fluoride?

The History of Fluoride

The discovery of fluoride as an anti-cavity agent wasn’t an overnight occurrence. It actually took over twenty years for scientists and dentists to realize the revolutionary power fluoride could have on the general population — when used in the correct dosage.

The long road to discovery began in 1901 with a fresh dental school grad named Frederick McKay. The newly minted dentist moved to Colorado Springs to open a dental practice. During his first few years there, he noticed many of the residents had dark brown staining on their teeth. These brown teeth were healthy and more cavity-resistant than their unstained counterparts.

McKay and a famous dentist known as Dr. G.V. Black worked together for years, trying to uncover the cause of “teeth mottling” (or fluorosis) as they called it. They found that a large percentage of the children in Colorado Springs had mottled teeth but they were unable to obtain a cause or a treatment for mottled teeth.

Fluorosis and Fluoridation

McKay later traveled to Oakley, Idaho where a large number of the town’s population had mottled teeth. It was there that McKay was able to start connecting some dots thanks to a larger study. That decade of research yielded surprising results: the recently-built communal water pipeline had extremely elevated levels of fluoride. When the town stopped drinking from the pipeline, the prevalence of mottled teeth decreased exponentially. The connection between mottled teeth and fluoride was finally forged.

In the years that followed, more scientists and dentists did tests of their own. They were able to find out the exact levels one must ingest in order to see the symptoms of fluorosis. They found that, in small doses, fluoride was more helpful than hurtful. The naturally occurring fluoride could fight tooth decay better than any lab-generated chemical compound. Eventually, town officials across the U.S. began fluoridating water supplies in an effort to curb tooth decay in children. The effects were immediate: tooth decay numbers dropped faster than anyone thought possible. Since fluoridating water is inexpensive (it costs about $1 a year per person), many local governments continue the practice today.

close up of teeth with mild fluorosis
An example of mild fluorosis.

How Much Fluoride Is Too Much?

We know, from those who suffered from severe fluorosis in the early 1900s, that there are some serious consequences to ingesting too much (or too little) fluoride as a child. When you’re young, your teeth are willing to absorb as much fluoride as you give them. Too much, and staining occurs. Not enough, and you are at a higher risk of tooth decay later in life.

If you’re worried about your child ingesting too much fluoride, here are a few simple steps to follow:

  • Make sure your child is brushing with a small amount of toothpaste.
  • Keep toothpaste out of reach when your child isn’t brushing.
  • Make sure your child understands how to spit residual toothpaste out after brushing.

If you do not want your child to brush with fluoride, there are some toothpaste products on the market that do not contain fluoride. However, the American Dental Association does not recommend brushing with non-fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride is the only naturally occurring ingredient on the planet that is guaranteed to protect against tooth decay. If your child doesn’t brush with fluoride toothpaste and doesn’t get fluoride treatments at the dentist’s office every six months, they will be at risk of having significant tooth decay and potential tooth loss later in life.

Is Fluorosis Common?

Compared to 1901, we’ve come a long way in the field of dental science. Very rarely does anyone get fluorosis anymore. We know how to keep the levels of fluoride in toothpaste, water supplies, and in-office fluoride treatments well below the danger point. If you’re worried about your child’s fluoride ingestion, talk to your dentist about what qualifies as a healthy level of fluoride. Chances are, you’ll find that your child is ingesting the recommended amount of fluoride.

Is Fluoride Safe?

In the United States, local governments have been putting fluorinating drinking water for almost one hundred years and there have been no negative side effects. Fluoride is naturally occurring and very safe when ingested in small doses. It’s actually a lot more dangerous for children to be cut off of fluoride at a young age because that means a significantly higher chance of severe decay later on. Protect your child’s smile by bringing them in for regular fluoride treatments and using an ADA certified fluoride toothpaste.