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Contrary to popular belief, sugar does not directly cause cavities. Yes, it is involved in the process but sugar in and of itself will not cause tooth decay. Isn’t the purpose of brushing to remove sugar, and therefore keep your teeth and gums healthy? Again, not exactly. The cause of tooth decay and gum disease is bacteria. In a completely sterile environment, sugar would do no harm to teeth, unfortunately, that isn’t the world we live in. There are approximately 800-1200 unique types of bacteria living in your mouth at all times.

The purpose of flossing and brushing is to remove bacteria. Without getting too deep into detail, it takes several hours for bad bacteria to build upon your teeth that will cause the majority of decay. That fuzzy feeling on your teeth toward the end of the day is bacteria multiplying and adhering to the surface of your teeth. We call this accumulation, plaque. Brushing twice daily will disrupt the accumulation of plaque and keep your mouth healthy.

The actual cause of tooth decay is not sugar, it is acid. The bacteria factor into this because they feed on sugar and release lots of acids. The plaque on your teeth is essentially a little acid factory for the next 30 minutes after you eat sugar or starch. This means that if you eat a piece of candy every 30 minutes as a snack, your teeth will be bathing in acid all day long. The acid dissolves the outer layers of tooth structure and then bacteria migrate deeper into the tooth. The process repeats every time you eat, and all too often, a cavity will form when the bacteria get too deep to be removed by flossing and brushing.

What does this mean for sugar intake and how can you combat the effect? Think of sugar as being more harmful to your teeth in terms of frequency, rather than the amount. If you slowly eat a large candy bar all day long at your desk, it is much worse for your teeth than if you ate that candy bar all at once. The same is true of coffee, soda, and Gatorade, but maybe even worse. These drinks contain their own acid, which will compound the problem. A soda chugged all at once is not much different than one single sip. So if you must have a soda or candy, you aren’t doing your teeth any good by spreading the event over an entire day.

All this is not to say sugar binging is healthier for your body, of course. The best way to avoid cavities, and stay healthy overall, is to avoid sugar as much as possible. If you can’t brush after eating sugar, try rinsing vigorously with water to help wash some of the sugar and acid away. Fluoride in toothpaste helps to make the teeth more resistant to acid, so be sure you have fluoride in the toothpaste you’re currently using. If you know you are prone to cavities or have had many fillings in the past, ask your dentist at Cody Dental about prescription fluoride products and have a more detailed conversation about how nutrition habits affect your teeth. We are here to help, and knowing why you should floss and brush is oftentimes much more effective than just being told to do so. Most importantly, have a safe and happy Halloween!

Sean Kennelly, DDS