Are Sports Drinks Bad for Your Mouth?

Medically Reviewed by Robert Brennan, DDS on March 20, 2023
3 min read

Sports drinks have made waves both on and off the playing field since they hit the market decades ago. Since their start as a way to help athletes rehydrate after vigorous exercise, they’ve gone mainstream. Now you’ll find them side by side with sodas and fruit juices on grocery store shelves and at restaurants.

It’s tempting to choose one over a soda because you think it’s better for you. But not so fast. These drinks can have as much or more sugar and acid than many sodas and juices. In fact, chug them down too often, and you might wind up with cavities or other tooth damage.

Brands vary, but most sports drinks promise electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Your body loses them when you engage in high-intensity exercise, especially for longer than an hour.

They also offer energy-boosting carbohydrates, which typically come from ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and sucrose. A single 12-ounce bottle might have 21 grams of sugar. It’s less than a high-sugar soda, which could have 39 grams, but way more than water.

And that can be a bad thing when all that sugar meets streptococcus mutans, one of themore than 700 different types of bacteria that live in your mouth.

Some bacteria in your mouth protect your teeth and gums. Others help you digest food. But this one loves sugar. It feeds on the sweet stuff and creates acids that eat away at your teeth.

Here's another problem. Many of these drinks have a high citric acid content. This flavor booster can extend the shelf life, which is good. But it can also strip the enamel from your teeth and make them more sensitive as well as more prone to cavities and decay.

Researchers look at pH levels, which measure the hydrogen ion concentration. Drinks with low pH are highly acidic. Sodas have a bad reputation for their acid content. But many sports drinks out there are their equal.

Little to no research exists on the effects of energy gels, sports chews and gums, and other snacks popular with athletes on oral health. However, a closer examination of the ingredients of those products shows similarities to their sports drink counterparts, in particular, citric acid.

Consuming sports drinks and other energy products doesn’t automatically put you on the direct path to teeth destruction. Several other factors play a role, like your overall dental hygiene, your lifestyle, your saliva production, and your genes. Some people will always be more susceptible to dental issues than others.

Water is and always will be the best drink for staying hydrated, but that doesn’t mean that sports drinks don’t have a role to play. But athletes -- particularly those engaged in vigorous activity for more than an hour at a time -- have shown improved performance levels after prolonged activity if they replenish their electrolytes while they rehydrate.

Sports drinks shouldn’t replace water as your go-to thirst quencher, but you don’t have to cut them out completely. Take these steps to help keep tooth decay at bay:

  • Don’t brush right after you drink one. Acid in the drinks can soften your enamel. Brushing right away helps wear that enamel down.
  • Do keep your mouth moist and ensure your saliva is flowing. Spit zaps those acids, protects your tooth enamel, and fights off decay. A dry mouth makes it easier for trouble to start. If you’re having trouble with mouth moisture, talk to your doctor.