Between everyday enemies like bacteria and plaque and occasional hazards like accidents or sports, teeth need to be strong to withstand everything we put them through. Lucky for teeth, they have a tough outer coating that protects them. This coating also gives them their pearly white sheen.
This coating is called enamel, and it is a vital part of a healthy tooth. Enamel plays many roles in dental health. By examining these roles, we can discover our role in caring for enamel and learn how to treat it right.
Enamel as a Beauty Contestant
Aside from the alignment of your teeth, nothing contributes more to your smile’s appearance than enamel. As the visible layer of a tooth’s anatomy, enamel gives teeth their outer coloring and shape.
Healthy tooth enamel comes in various shades of white. This basic white sometimes has a yellow, grey, or blue hue to it. Enamel is also semi-translucent, or you can partially see through it. Sometimes dentin’s color shows through enamel’s coating and contributes to enamel’s color.
Teeth have different shapes because they are specialized for different chewing tasks. Enamel’s thickness varies to give teeth these unique shapes. In general, enamel is thickest on a tooth’s exposed crown, the part not covered by gums. In the crown, the thickest enamel sits on the cusps, the tooth’s highest points.
Enamel is much thinner around a tooth’s root, the pointed part of a tooth that rests in the gums and your jawbones. Because this part of a tooth isn’t usually exposed, it requires less protection.
Enamel as a Secure Fortress
With a dense concentration of minerals, tooth enamel is harder than any bone in the body. In fact, it’s more than 95% minerals! Bone is only about 70% mineral.
Tooth enamel’s mineral density allows it to protect the other layers of teeth. Unlike these other layers, enamel has no nerves or blood vessels. This characteristic makes enamel less sensitive to pain and enables it to withstand biting, tearing, chewing, and grinding while protecting the tooth’s more sensitive inner structure.
Enamel as a World-Class Goalkeeper
Despite its inherent strength, enamel’s high mineral concentration comes with an innate weakness, too. Packed together tightly, enamel’s minerals usually hold strong to protect teeth. But at a microscopic level, enamel’s minerals are vulnerable to removal when bacteria or acid attack the tooth’s surface.
Think of enamel as a well-trained soccer goalie and the inside of the tooth as the net. Individual shots for a goal are like foods we eat—each one creates bacteria or acid on the enamel’s surface, threatening to get inside.
Most of the time, enamel protects the tooth. But, just like many goal attempts can tire a goalie, repeated exposure to bacteria and acid-creating foods decays enamel. And, even the best goalies cannot stop every ball from entering the net. In a similar manner, enamel cannot always prevent tooth decay from exposing other layers of a tooth, resulting in a cavity.
Do Your Part to Protect Enamel
What we eat makes a difference to our enamel’s strength. To give your enamel a better chance at blocking cavities from forming, practice these eating habits:
- Avoid acidic foods, like carbonated soda, fruit juice, and citrus fruits.
- Snack sparingly to expose enamel to as little acid and bacteria as possible.
- Limit sugary and starchy foods to minimize acidic buildup in your mouth.
Remember, cavities are not inevitable. By practicing basic oral hygiene, you can protect your teeth’s enamel from decay. Brushing and flossing daily helps remove bacteria, acid, and other erosive substances that build up on teeth throughout the day. Regular dental check-ups keep cavities from becoming bigger, more painful problems.
Sometimes teeth have decayed a little, but not to the point of needing a filling. For less extensive mineral breakdown in enamel, use toothpaste with fluoride. A fluoridated toothpaste gives extra protection because it encourages teeth to pick up additional minerals. Unless your dentist directs you otherwise, it’s best to use toothpaste with fluoride because of its enamel-protecting powers.
In between your regular dental cleanings, you can watch your tooth enamel for signs of decay. It’s a good chance you have some tooth decay if you notice any of these symptoms:
- Spots on your teeth
- Persistent bad breath
- Swollen gums
- A toothache
Enamel decay usually gets bigger when it’s left untreated, so if you experience these symptoms, it’s best to schedule an appointment with your dentist right away. Your dentist can check for decay and take care of it if necessary. On its own, your tooth cannot reproduce decayed enamel or fill in cavities. That’s why your dentist puts in a filling: to cover the decay that caused the cavity and to prevent further mineral erosion.
Now that you know about enamel’s roles in dental health—and how to make sure it performs these roles effectively—you are ready to help enamel block cavities from forming and preserve your smile.