Why Do Teeth Decay?

Tooth enamel (the protective outer layer of your teeth) is literally the hardest thing in your body and when taken care of properly it can last you a lifetime. However, enamel is not impervious to breakdown and you must follow some basic dental disease prevention measures. Why? Well, let’s start by identifying the key ingredient that makes up the protective layer of our teeth. It is a substance called calcium phosphate. And chemistry 101 teaches us that phosphates dissolve in acid.

So, any acidic foods we eat can have a corrosive effect on our enamel. This includes even some healthy foods such as citric fruits, which of course contain citric acid. Have you ever known anyone who likes to put sugar or salt on a lemon wedge, place it right there on their front teeth and then suck all the juice out of it? Despite the fact that this was actually one of my mom’s favorite things to do, I have to say it is definitely not recommend (sorry mom).

People with a habit of sucking on citrus fruits – or even eating them in excess – inevitably end up with some form of breakdown right there on their front teeth. At the very least it will cause de-mineralization (weak spots that have a super white appearance) or even worse, huge cavities.

The point of mentioning this is to highlight the fact that even foods that are considered healthy for your body can be very caustic to your teeth if consumed in excess or in an improper way.

Now, let’s move on to a more obvious culprit, soda pop. Of course, the sugar in soda pop is known to cause cavities (we will delve into the sugar aspect of cavities in another article). Many reasonable people have assumed that switching to sugarless soda could help reduce their risk of developing tooth decay. Unfortunately this is not entirely true. Why? It is because sugar is not the only cariogenic (cavity-causing) ingredient in soda.

Carbonic acid is the chemical injected into soft drinks, which is responsible for giving them that delightful fizziness that we all love. Unfortunately, it is also acidic enough to dissolve enamel. Have you ever known anyone who brings a big 64oz. ‘Big Gulp’ to work and just sips on it all day long? This is a definite “no-no” if you are trying to reduce your risk of cavities. If you absolutely must drink soda it is better that you do it all in one brief setting so as to reduce the amount of time your teeth are exposed to the acids.

It is best to brush and floss your teeth after any acid exposure! Many ADA approved toothpastes contain ingredients to buffer the effects of acid. If brushing and flossing is not possible then a thorough rinse with water can be helpful to wash off the caustic substances and neutralize the acid attack.