The Jekyll and Hyde of Fluoride

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Several years ago, I changed my toothpaste. I did this because I’d worked out, through experimentation, that SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate), a foaming agent found in many bathroom and kitchen products, gave me clammy hands and mouth ulcers. Not surprisingly, I didn’t want it in my mouth any more. I found a different toothpaste that was SLS-free and began using it exclusively.

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One side-effect of using this new toothpaste was that I was no longer brushing with fluoride, as the new toothpaste I’ve been using has no SLS or fluoride in its ingredients. I did wonder, at the time, if this might cause problems with my teeth, as fluoride is continually recommended to help avoid tooth decay. As this website article states, it's the 'super-hero of cavity fighting'. In the end, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see how I got on without it.

The years have gone and my teeth are still fine. I have no need for fillings, I have no gum problems and although my teeth aren’t perfect (they’re naturally a very pale yellow and a bit wonky), everything is fine inside my mouth. It would seem that I don't need this 'super-hero'.

But there is important and revealing change that has occurred in my mouth since I switched to a fluoride and SLS-free toothpaste. It’s this change that’s made me write this article. Before I made the toothpaste-switch, I enjoyed having a bit of chocolate every day, as a treat. After the switch, I found it more and more difficult to enjoy that treat. This wasn’t because I was feeling guilty. Instead, I wasn't able to enjoy my chocolate treat because as soon as the chocolate melted in my mouth, the nerves in my teeth complained. They made it very clear that they didn’t like what was swilling around them. Eventually, I gave up my daily chocolate fix because the discomfort from my teeth killed off my enjoyment of the treat. Since that time, I’ve phased out chocolate, sugar drinks and very hot drinks mostly because of those alarm signals from my teeth. It's not been a high-minded ethical decision on my part, it's been mostly an 'ow-ow' decision!

I wondered if fluoride was the reason behind this change. I did some research and found that fluoride in toothpaste acts as a mineraliser. When fluoride is spread across teeth during brushing, it forms a layer over the teeth, a bit like limescale on a tap. This layer covers the tooth’s surface, which can be a useful protection, but it also covers the tiny holes in the tooth that allow material in the mouth to get into the tooth’s inner part where its nerves are sited. These are known as dentinal tubules. In other words, fluoride does protect against tooth erosion but it also desensitises the teeth by blocking up their tiny holes, so the teeth's nerves don’t pick up what’s swilling around the mouth cavity, so they can't send out pain alarm signals. All this is well-established science.

And so the Dr Jekyll side of fluoride (the good scientist side) is that it brings extra protective layer and less pain.

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But by blocking up the tiny holes in our teeth, fluoride is effectively turning off our mouth's alarm system. The nerves in our teeth, developed over millions of years to warn us if we’re consuming something that’s bad for our mouth and teeth, have been rendered mute. This is the Mr Hyde of fluoride, the nasty, brutal, amoral side. While brushing with fluoride toothpaste, a person does get an extra layer of mineral protection, as the articles and dental websites state. This is all very well, but it also means that their mouth is wide-open, so-to-speak, to damaging abuse because they're not getting any warning from their immensely sophisticated nerves about to the toxicity of what they’ve put in their mouth.

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Our dentists are therefore correct when they recommend fluoride toothpaste for its protective-layer benefits. But there may be a dark side that hugely benefits dentists' income, as well as the share prices of all those sugar companies. Because the dentists' patients take their dentist's advice on fluoride, they are able to painlessly swill down and chomp on sugars and acidic foods that will rot their teeth. They can do this easily because their teeth cannot give them a jolt of warning because the fluoride’s bunged up the detector holes. As a result, people enjoy their treats painlessly, the sugar companies make lots of money and the dentists get lots of work.

In the end, we have to decide ourselves; is our dentist and our toothpaste companies being Dr Jekyll when it comes to fluoride, or Mr Hyde?