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Why is Acid Bad for Your Teeth?

June 17, 2015

I remember loving candy as a kid but being told that sugar was the sworn enemy of my teeth. I couldn’t go anywhere near a variety store without hearing my mother’s voice: “Your teeth WILL fall out.” What a bummer. No more NERDS; no more Fuzzy Peaches, no more Gobstoppers. Thanks a lot, sugar.

Sugar is often vilified as a primary cause of tooth decay among youngsters, and it certainly deserves this mantle. But there’s a new baddie on the block; another sinister force looking to take down your lovely smile.

Acid.

Look at it sitting there on its own, all abrupt and sinister. Ugh.

Why is acid so bad for your teeth? Simple: acid in your mouth erodes your enamel. But how did it become the new dark lord of decay? Three reasons: 1) our interest in the health benefits of citrus fruits; 2) the sport and energy drink phenomenon; and 3) soda pop.

What Acid Does

Our teeth come with a protective layer called enamel, which is actually the hardest material that the human body produces. Enamel acts like a shield for the soft inner material called dentin, which is weak and prone to cavities. Enamel protects from bacteria and trauma (presumably from beer bottle caps) but it has a weakness: it starts to dissolve when exposed to acid.

The pH Scale

Quick lesson: the pH scale measures a solution’s acidity, and ranges from 1 to 14. At the same time, your tooth enamel starts to erode when exposed to acids of certain strengths in your mouth. A pH of 7 is neutral; anything below that is acidic. Each whole pH value below 7 is ten times more acidic than the next higher value. So, the lower the PH level, the stronger the acid. In the case of tooth enamel, solutions with pH values lower than 5.5 can cause decay and erosion. Got it?

Signs of Acid Erosion

The main sign of acid erosion is the cupping of the top of the teeth and a brown area in the middle, as seen here:

This patient with worn down teeth (who has been seeing me for over 20 years) sucked on lemon wedges for a snack!
Compare against a healthy tooth shown here:

Prevention

The best prevention against acid erosion is to avoid acidic drinks altogether. This gets tricky with things like citrus fruits (oranges, lemons and limes) that we consume for our health. Limiting soda pop and sport/energy drink intake is good for oral and physical health, but these drinks are often consumed out of habit (especially when part of a work routine, for example).

If you have to consume anything acidic be sure to rinse your mouth with water afterwards, or follow it with other drinks or foods that are higher on the pH scale, like milk, yogurt or cheese.

Whatever you do, don’t brush your teeth immediately after consuming acids. Strange as it sounds, there’s a period after ingesting acids when the enamel is softer than normal. Brushing, especially with coarser toothpaste, amplifies wear and erosion.

Tips for Battling Acid Erosion

  • Try drinking anything sweet or acidic through a straw to reduce direct contact with the teeth
  • Rinse your mouth with water after consuming these drinks. Do this before brushing your teeth to help neutralize the acids
  • Chew xylitol gum or mints after consuming these drinks to help restore pH to a less acidic level
  • Don’t give your kids pop at bedtime. Apart from turning them into hyperactive monsters the liquid can pool in the mouth, coating the teeth with sugar and acid
  • Always use fluoride toothpaste to protect your enamel
What’s your favourite drink? Can you find it on the list below? See where you stand in terms of the biggest acid erosion culprits and think about changing your consumption habits.

That’s it for now,

Dr. Pasha


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