The outer surface of teeth, called enamel, should last a lifetime. "Enamel is the hardest substance in the body," says dentist Leslie Seldin, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.
Some wear and tear of tooth enamel is normal. But Seldin says there's plenty you can do to keep your enamel strong. Start with these eight steps.
1. Limit Sugary Soft Drinks and Foods
Sugar leads to acids in the mouth, which soften and eventually wear away at enamel. Chewy candies that stick on your teeth are very damaging. Soft drinks may have extra acids. Artificially sweetened soft drinks are a smarter choice than sugary soft drinks. But sugarless sweeteners are also acidic and may erode enamel over time. The best choice when you're thirsty? A glass of water.
2. Help Yourself to Foods That Protect Enamel
Calcium in foods counteracts acids in your mouth, and also helps keep bones and teeth strong. Milk, cheese, and other dairy products all help protect and strengthen enamel, says Pamela L. Quinones, RDH. She's a past president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy to help keep fat and calories to a minimum. If you don't eat dairy, look for fortified foods. Choose citrus juice with added calcium to buffer the natural acids.
3. Avoid Over-Brushing
Brushing too fast and hard can wear down enamel. Hold a soft-bristle brush at about a 45-degree angle to your gums and move it back and forth in short, gentle strokes, about the distance of one tooth, Seldin says. Wait for up to an hour after eating sweets or citrus fruits. Acidic foods temporarily soften enamel and may make it easier to damage. Give your enamel time to re-harden before cleaning.
4. Treat Heartburn and Eating Disorders
With severe heartburn, stomach acids may escape up into the esophagus. If those acids reach your mouth, they can erode enamel. The eating disorder bulimia, in which people vomit food after they eat, is another threat. If you have symptoms of heartburn or bulimia, talk to your doctor about treatment.
5. Beware of Chlorinated Pools
When swimming pools aren't chlorinated properly, the water may become too acidic. Tooth enamel exposed to pool water can begin to erode. In a CDC study, 15% of frequent swimmers showed signs of enamel erosion, compared to only 3% of people who didn't swim. Check with the recreation center or gym where you swim to make sure the pool's pH is checked regularly. While swimming, keep your mouth closed to avoid exposing your teeth to chlorinated water.
6. Be Alert to Dry Mouth
Saliva helps wash away food and bacteria that can lead to cavities. It also counteracts the effects of acidic foods. People with very low salivary levels (xerostomia) often show signs of enamel erosion. Drink water often to keep your mouth clean and moist. If you exercise hard, be sure to rehydrate during and after your workout. Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candy can also help. Some medical conditions and certain medications can cause dry mouth. If the condition persists, talk to your doctor.