Fluoride is a compound of fluorine, a chemical element universally found in in water, soil, air and in most foods. Existing abundantly in living tissue as an ion, fluoride is absorbed easily into tooth enamel, especially in children’s growing teeth. Once teeth are developed, fluoride makes the entire tooth structure more resistant to decay and promotes re-mineralization, which aids in repairing early decay before the damage is visible.

“Systemic” fluoride is ingested when added to public and private water supplies, soft drinks and teas, and is available in dietary supplement form. Once systemic fluoride is absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract, the blood supply distributes it throughout the entire body. Most fluoride not excreted is deposited in bones and hard tissues like teeth.

“Topical” fluoride can be prescribed and/or administered by your dentist and in lesser concentrations, it is available in over-the-counter (OTC) products. Professionally-administered topical fluorides such as gels or varnishes are applied by the hygienist or prescribed by your dentist for temporary home use while the OTC products, including toothpastes and mouth rinses are intended for direct application to the teeth and expectorated or rinsed from the mouth without swallowing. Dentists recommend brushing with a fluoridated toothpaste at least twice a day or after every meal, combined with a regimen of flossing and regular dental checkups. (check this paragraph – I thought that the topical products applied by the dentist or hygienist were also spitted out. This is confusing.

Fluoridated water protects against cavities and root caries, a progressive erosion of adult root surfaces caused by gum recession. It also helps remineralize early carious lesions. Thanks to these preventive benefits, public water fluoridation is considered the most efficient and cost-effective dental caries prevention measure available. More than 144 million United States residents in more than 10,000 communities drink fluoridated water, most from public water supplies with sodium fluoride added artificially. A small percentage use water from private wells with naturally fluoridated water. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the accepted “optimal” range of fluoride in water lies between 0.7 and 1.2 parts per million (ppm). Backed by results from more than 140 documented studies undertaken in 20 different countries over the past several decades, fluoridated water that adheres to these standards has been scientifically established as safe for drinking. Water fluoridation is endorsed by nearly every major health and safety-related organization. Fluoridation of community water supplies is the single most effective public health measure to prevent tooth decay and to improve oral health for a lifetime.

In general, the use of fluoride is considered safe unless ingested in unsafe amounts during early childhood. The result of excessive fluoride in early childhood is a condition called dental fluorosis, a harmless cosmetic discoloring or mottling of the enamel, visible by chalky white specks and lines or pitted and brown stained enamel on developing teeth. Young children and those children in their early teen years should avoid swallowing toothpaste, mouth-rinses or other topical supplements. If you are concerned about the fluoride levels in your drinking water, call the local public water department. If the source is a private well, request a fluoride content analysis performed using a water sample by your local or county health department.