Fluoride should not be confused with the element fluorine, since it is just a simplified form of it. It has a negative charge and is classified as a halide ion. Fluoride's negative charge comes from the presence of an extra electron when compared with the basic element. Fluoride is a very common element, the 13th most abundant on Earth.
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The element is found in minerals like fluorapatite and fluorite but is widespread and present in water, food or soil. Fluoride is one of the minerals rich in negative-charged fluoride ions. These minerals have many industrial uses and are especially needed for the productions of fluorocarbons, which requires hydrogen fluoride. Fluoride is also naturally found in water, with a concentration of 0.01 to 0.3 ppm (parts per million) in normal fresh water and about 1.3 ppm in seawater. Too much fluoride can be dangerous in drinking water and this is a health concern in some parts of the world. Chemically, fluoride ions and hydroxide ions have a very similar structure.
It is also possible to produce fluoride in labs. Artificial fluoride is a component of several chemical products but is also added to enrich drinking water and used as an ingredient of mouthwash and toothpaste.
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The normal water and food that we consume every day offers a constant supply of fluoride. However, it is artificially added to drinking water in some countries due to its health benefits. The compound actually reaches drinking water because it is present in many rocks and is accumulated in streams as they flow naturally.
Fluoride is especially important for teeth health. According to several studies, this compound is helpful in all stages of teeth decay, from the early damage that is not actually visible to the reduction of cavities. It is effective at all ages against cavities and all kinds of teeth damage.
As a mineral, fluoride is widespread in the Earth's crust. It can be found in nature, in all three states of matter: gas, liquid or solid. It is colorless and has been proven to be key for the maintenance of teeth, as long as the supply doesn't exceed the recommended dosage. In some parts of the world, small amounts are added to drinking water. Numerous studies have proven that people who drink water with fluoride have less cavities than those who don't.
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Scientists have identified the exact mechanism of how fluoride protects the teeth. Kinds under the age of seven still develop their tooth structure and fluoride makes it stronger and more durable. It is very important that kids get the right amount of fluoride during this time. It will make their enamel more resilient and able to withstand acid corrosion for longer before taking damage. Kids who develop stronger enamel at this stage will have durable teeth for their entire lifetime.
Most of teeth damage is actually caused by the plaque deposits that build up around them. The bacteria in plaque are in permanent contact with the enamel and start attacking it. The damage happens slowly, as the bacteria weaken the mineral structure of enamel and infiltrate it. The opposite process is called remineralization and is used by our body to repair the damage. However, too much sugar and bad oral hygiene can make the repair process completely ineffective, exposing the teeth to permanent damage.
Fluoride plays a key role in remineralization and is one of the main building blocks of healthy teeth. Fluoride can actually cause the repaired enamel to be more resilient than the original one, making it much less likely to be affected by cavities and fissures.
This mineral also acts against bacterial plaque. The bacteria in plaque produce acids that are the main cause of cavities and tooth decay. Fluoride is able to neutralize some enzymes in plaque, inhibiting the production of acids and protecting enamel from damage.
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Fluoride might be even more important for tooth development than previously thought, according to some recent research. Teeth have a number of natural fissures, also known as grooves. Studies have revealed that kids who consume a diet rich in fluoride don't have fissures as deep as the ones who lack this essential mineral. If the grooves are shallow, the risk that bacteria and food debris can get stuck in them decreases. It is very difficult to clean these fissures, so any material stuck in them can cause cavities. Shallower grooves mean a healthier mouth overall.
This mineral becomes part of the enamel structure, when it comes in contact with it. It is able to fix minerals like calcium and phosphorous and replace any amounts that were lost, restoring the structure of enamel, as part of remineralization. Demineralization is a cyclical process that can't be avoided but fluoride is able to limit the damage done during this phase. As a result, tooth decay is reduced and they last a lot longer.
While important for tooth health at all ages, fluoride is the most important during the development phase, between 6 months and about 16 years old. During this time, both the temporary and the permanent teeth emerge. However, fluoride is also critical for adults, since it makes enamel stronger and fights tooth decay, especially when included as an ingredient in mouthwash.
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This compound is not only good against cavities but it treats many other related dental problems as well, such as gum conditions or dry mouth. However, fluoride can be dangerous in large amounts, so you must be careful not to consume too much. There is always a risk to ingest toothpaste by mistake, so mouthwash is a better option for your supply of fluoride.
Dentists are aware today of the double action of this mineral against tooth decay. It disrupts the metabolism of bacteria that produce dangerous acids, while at the same time improving tooth structure.
Fluoride can be supplied both passively (systemically) or actively (topically). A systemic supply of the mineral is usually achieved by adding it to drinking water. This is especially useful for kids, who will develop stronger teeth that are less vulnerable to cavities. Constantly consuming a small quantity of fluoride in the water supply causes the mineral to reach the saliva and come in direct contact with the teeth. Since our mouth is always full of saliva, fluoride can work on teeth health for the entire day. Adults can also benefit from this effect.
Topical administration is a stronger dose of fluoride, usually delivered during a visit at the dentist. The higher amount is placed directly on the affected teeth and allowed to repair any damaged areas. Our teeth are constantly injured by various acids, such as the ones produced by bacteria or the ones found in carbonated soft drinks.
Fluoride has been proven to be beneficial for dental health when added to drinking water. However, some people are not comfortable with the idea that a chemical is mixed in their water supply. This is a very long controversy and there is a movement that demands the end of water fluoridation.
It is known that consuming too much fluoride can cause a disease named fluorosis. Many studies have tried to determine if this condition can be triggered by the fluoride in drinking water. Most scientists agree that the amounts in the water are too low to be dangerous and can't trigger fluorosis. This is also the official position of the American Dental Association, which claims that water fluoridation is beneficial and safe, based on all available evidence.