Understanding the Chemistry of Your Oral Health

November 06, 2018

Woman brushing her teeth by a mirror

In honor of Chemistry Week (observed annually in the first week of November), we’d like to take a closer look at the fascinating chemical interactions that underlie all the standard oral health recommendations we’re all familiar with.

Why we brush and floss

While it’s true that brushing and flossing your teeth removes food particles and plaque from the surfaces of your teeth, why does that really matter? The answer is in the chemistry.

Your mouth is home to billions of microorganisms, many of which are perfectly healthy and necessary. Some, however, are not. (We’re looking at you, streptococcus mutans.) In a healthy, balanced mouth, the good bacteria outnumber the bad and oral health is maintained. However, brushing and flossing your teeth is a vital step in maintaining that balance.

Why?

Because, while good bacteria generally travel around your mouth doing what good bacteria do, the bad bacteria tend to congregate on your tooth enamel and begin building “fortifications” in the form of plaque. If left undisturbed, this plaque can harden into tartar (aka calculus), which is nearly as hard and resilient as the enamel it’s covering up. Meanwhile, the bad bacteria are still alive and well beneath that scaly protective layer, and they’re still doing what bad bacteria do.

Which brings us to…

Why sugar is bad for your teeth

It may sound strange, but sugar itself isn’t bad for your teeth at all. In fact, if it weren’t for those bad bacteria we were just discussing, sugar would do nothing harmful to your teeth to speak of.

However, due to the interconnected chemistry and biology happening at a microscopic level, sugar is one of the worst things you can put in your mouth. That’s because it’s the favorite food of bad bacteria. A sticky film of sugary residue is what draws these bacteria to the surface of your teeth in the first place. Then, as they feed on the sugar, a chemical reaction takes place inside each single-celled organism, and the final byproduct is acid.

It’s this acid — not the sugar — that weakens and eventually destroys tooth enamel. A diet including a lot of highly acidic foods can have a similar weakening effect on enamel. The result is cavities and tooth decay. Unlike many other wounds, once a cavity starts it’s nearly impossible to reverse. But, cavities can be prevented, which is where chemistry comes to the rescue again…

The role of vitamins and minerals in strengthening teeth

To keep your teeth strong and resistant to tooth decay caused by acid, there are three key strategies you can employ:

  1. Brushing and flossing regularly
  2. Tooth-friendly nutrition
  3. Direct remineralization

As we already discussed, brushing and flossing regularly are vital aspects of every oral health routine. But, the act of brushing doesn’t actually strengthen teeth. What these activities do is regularly scrub off the surfaces of teeth to disrupt the accumulation of bad bacteria, the buildup of plaque and tartar, and the concentrated impact of acid that these situations cause.

Strengthening the teeth requires providing your body — and your teeth directly — the vitamins and minerals they need to continually repair and harden the existing enamel. Some of these vital chemical building blocks can be absorbed and utilized by the teeth directly (known as direct remineralization), but most need to be taken in via food.

Direct remineralization

"Unlike many other wounds, once a cavity starts it’s nearly impossible to reverse. But, cavities can be prevented, which is where chemistry comes to the rescue again."

The most common example of direct remineralization is the use of fluoride, which is a common ingredient in toothpaste, is applied directly to teeth in gel form during dental visits, and is added to most municipal water supplies in the United States. Fluoride has long been known to strengthen tooth enamel by serving as a sort of “mortar” that allows the “building block” mineral, hydroxyapatite, to incorporate itself into existing enamel.

Hydroxyapatite itself is also applied by dentists in gel form (often in conjunction with fluoride), but it’s not nearly as readily available for commercial use. Here is one example of a gel you can apply at home that contains bio-available hydroxyapatite.

To a lesser degree, chewing some foods provides a level of direct remineralization as well. These include:

  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Natto (fermented soybeans)
  • Some meats and poultry
  • Dark, leafy greens like swiss chard and spinach
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Avocado
  • Green and white tea

Tooth-friendly nutrition

The more important means of obtaining the vitamins and minerals your teeth need to stay strong and healthy involves what you routinely eat.

Basically, any food that is a good source of the following vitamins and minerals is good for your teeth:

  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin K

Of course, as you're making choices about what to eat, all the chemical factors we've discussed need to be balanced. For example, a tall glass of fresh lemonade has lots of healthy Vitamin C, but it's also highly acidic and loaded with sugar. That doesn't mean you should never enjoy lemonade, but if you're trying to increase your Vitamin C intake to help your teeth, there are better ways to accomplish it.

While the chemistry of oral health is fascinating and can help inform your choices, it actually just serves to underline the importance of those basic tenets we all already know:

  • Brush and floss daily (to disrupt the accumulation of plaque and all the acid production going on there.)
  • Rinse daily with an antibacterial mouthwash (to help keep your oral bacteria in balance and under control.)
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet (to limit sugar, balance acidity, and strengthen teeth.)
  • Visit the dentist regularly (to receive a more thorough cleaning and fluoride treatments.)

So, while maintaining excellent oral health is a kind of “chemical warfare”, the weapons and strategies are simple.

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