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How Enamel Protects Your Teeth

Enamel is kind of like an eggshell. It protects the soft part of the tooth inside.

Unlike an egg’s outer layer, though, enamel is tough. It’s the hardest substance in your body. With some luck -- and good dental care -- it can withstand decades of biting, chewing, and crunching.

What Makes Teeth White?

Enamel might seem white, but it’s clear. Light can shine through it. The layer underneath, dentin, shows through, and that’s what makes a tooth look light or dark.  

Over time, coffee, tea, wine, cigarettes, and other substances can stain the outer layer of your teeth a dingy yellow or gray.

From Enamel Erosion to Cavities

As tough as tooth enamel is, it can be breached. Acids from foods and bacteria eat away at it, causing erosion and cavities.

In this slide, cavities are forming in the center.

Enamel can also be chipped or cracked. Unlike bone, it can’t grow back on its own. The damage is permanent.

 

Tooth Decay and Sensitivity

What happens when tooth enamel is damaged? The inner layer gets exposed, and decay can start. Cavities aren't the only problem.

Teeth with damaged enamel can react to extreme heat or cold. Eating ice cream or sipping hot coffee can be a pain, or at least unpleasant.

How Bacteria Destroys Enamel

After you eat, bacteria in your mouth feast on sugars from sweet foods and starches. This makes acids that can destroy enamel. The green rods in this slide are bacteria that cause mild gum disease, also called gingivitis.

The acids in sodas, juices, and drinks are harmful, too. Some are harsher than battery acid. Over time, they cause erosion, shrinking the size of the tooth.

Wine Drinkers, Beware

If you enjoy a glass -- or two -- of wine in the evening, you may be at high risk for enamel stain and erosion.

Why? Sipping wine many times a day -- and swishing it in the mouth -- exposes the enamel to harmful acids.

That’s why it’s better to drink a glass of wine, soda, or sweet tea with a meal instead of sipping it over several hours.

Eating and Digestive Problems

Some health conditions can damage tooth enamel. This slide shows erosion from the eating disorder bulimia, caused when stomach acid enters the mouth because of frequent vomiting.

Acid reflux, stomach problems, and other eating disorders can have this effect.

The Problem With Dry Mouth

Saliva takes care of acids in the mouth that erode your teeth. It also helps restore tooth enamel.

If you have a dry mouth caused by a drug side effect or a health condition, the acids stick around longer, causing more damage.

Grinding Teeth

Another cause of tooth enamel damage is bruxism, or teeth-grinding. Over time, the constant clenching and friction can wear down or fracture the enamel. In this slide, teeth grinding has ground down the upper and lower front teeth.

Bruxism is often worst when you sleep -- that's when you can't control it. Reducing stress may help. Some people wear a special mouth guard to bed. Ask your dentist if this is a problem. You can buy the guards in a drugstore or discount store, or your dentist may make you a custom model. 

Your Mouth Is Not a Bottle Opener!

Never open bottles, packages, or other containers with your teeth. You might chip or crack the enamel.

Gnawing on anything else -- like pens or fingernails -- or chomping down on seeds, popcorn kernels, or ice could have the same result.

Kids and Tooth Enamel Erosion

Many experts say tooth enamel erosion is on the rise -- especially in children. Why? Some say today’s kids get too many acidic drinks and sodas.

The switch to bottled water, which means less tap water with fluoride, could also be part of the problem.

Tips to Fight Tooth Enamel Erosion

You can take simple steps to help your teeth. Brush after you eat or drink. Use a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste.

You can also have some milk or a piece of cheese after a meal to zap the acids.

Love gum? You’re in luck. Chew sugar-free gum with xylitol after eating to get your saliva going --  another way to stop acid damage.

Improve Your Dental Hygiene

Floss your teeth; don’t use toothpicks.

Brush your teeth gently. Scouring teeth with a hard-bristled toothbrush can damage enamel.

Follow directions when using teeth-whitening products. They can be bad for your teeth if used improperly or too often.

If you need pointers on the right way to care for your teeth, just ask your dentist.

What Causes Tooth Enamel Erosion

Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on June 23, 2014

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