By Serusha Govender
You know that the key to a great smile is keeping your pearly whites in top-notch shape. The best way to do that? By taking really good care of your tooth enamel. Enamel is the thin outer covering of teeth that protects the delicate tissues inside. A lifetime of chomping and sipping can stain, chip and wear away that covering, however -- and once that happens, your teeth become extremely sensitive to hot and cold. Even your favorite sugary treats can deliver a twinge (if not a bolt) of pain.
While tooth enamel is actually translucent, teeth start to look more yellow as it wears away, because the yellow dentin underneath begins to show through. Which can leave you wondering: What can you do to get your precious enamel back? Today there are lots of products out there (from toothpastes to mouthwashes to dental guards filled with strange, squishy paste) that allegedly help restore lost enamel. But by making that promise, are manufacturers biting off more than they can chew?
The Verdict: You can do a lot to protect and strengthen your tooth enamel, but once it has eroded, it’s gone, baby, gone!
The human body’s pretty amazing: Broken skin heals; cut nails and hair grow back again; fractured bones knit together. But as amazing as the body's ability to repair itself may be, it can’t regrow tooth enamel. Ever.
Tooth enamel is the hardest tissue in the body. Problem is, it’s not living tissue, so it can't be naturally regenerated. Unfortunately, you can’t regrow it artificially, either -- not even with those special toothpastes. But chin up: Some dental products can help with the tooth-enamel issue; just not in the way you might think. "You can’t regrow tooth enamel, but you can remineralize it," says upwave review-board member Mark Wolff, DDS, a professor of dentistry at New York University. "That's what these [toothpastes] actually do... They push calcium and phosphates back into the tooth, and it hardens the enamel." The secret weapon? Good old fluoride. While acid draws calcium and phosphates out of teeth, fluoride captures the minerals from saliva and forces them back into the tooth.
OK, so fluoride works fine when it comes to strengthening existing enamel. But what do you do if your chompers are suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous cavities? Well, your dentist can add a plastic sealant that bonds to your enamel, providing an extra layer of protection. (It's not ideal or permanent, but it's the best fix available right now.) Last year, scientists from Kinki University in Japan adapted hydroxyapatite (the biomaterial that makes up enamel) into a thin film that can be wrapped around the tooth as an enamel substitute. It's a promising start, though many dentists are not convinced it's the right way to go. "Hydroxyapatite's a complex crystal; you can't just stuff it onto the outside of the tooth and make it stick there," says Wolff. "[Maybe] in the future with nanotechnology we can find a way to grow crystals on the outside of the tooth that are part of the actual tooth or bonded onto it, but at this particular moment we have nothing like that."
For now, your best option is to focus on preserving the enamel you have. Brushing and flossing are important, but so is diet: Carbonated sodas and sweets are obvious causes of enamel erosion, but there are many other overt offenders to watch out for (such as fruit juices -- especially lemon juice). Turns out, adding that healthy "splash of lemon" to your cup of tea or hot water increases your risk of enamel erosion because lemon juice (like OJ) is extremely acidic. "If it tastes tart, it's an acid -- and that's a problem," says Wolff. "We're seeing more abrasion too... When you brush your teeth after drinking orange juice, you soften your tooth with the acid, then add a layer of abrasion on top of that... You abrade and erode at the same time."
The fix? Drink acidic beverages with a straw, which pushes the fluid to the back of the mouth and away from your teeth. And make sure you rinse your mouth with clean water after indulging, to neutralize mouth acid. For added protection, chew sugar-free gum; it boosts the production of saliva, which contains minerals that strengthen teeth. (Bonus if your gum contains xylitol, which counteracts the acid in foods and beverages.)
Think that whitening your sparkling smile will also leave your enamel in great shape? Think again: Most over-the-counter teeth whiteners are also highly acidic, which means they can cause your enamel to wear away fast. Use them in moderation, warns Wolff -- and remember: Nothing beats a good old-fashioned trip to the dentist.