The American Dental Association recognizes each February as National Children's Dental Health Month. Given that the most common chronic disease among children is dental decay (cavities), this month's goal is to help increase awareness of good oral health practices and recommendations among parents and children.
With dental cavities being five times more common than asthma and largely preventable, this year's theme for community education is centered around dental sealants and why they make sense. To reduce the risk for cavities among children, it is essential to recognize and learn about what methods of prevention exist. To contribute to the 2022 National Children's Dental Health theme, I hope to answer some of the parents' most common questions about dental sealants.
What are dental sealants?
Dental sealants are a type of dental procedure that aids in cavity prevention for specific tooth surfaces. Dental sealants are a thin layer of protective material applied to those tooth surfaces that are presented as rough or uneven. The chewing surfaces of molars benefit the most from dental sealants.
Why are dental sealants recommended?
Dental sealants have been used for over five decades to help prevent dental cavities. The anatomical grooves of the primary (baby) and permanent molars may be rough, attracting bacteria to the surface. If bacteria attach to these deep crevices, they interact with the foods and liquids consumed. As a result, an acid forms, and the outermost layer of the tooth is at risk for breaking down. If this happens, a cavity (small hole) begins to develop. A dental sealant is recommended to create a smooth surface on the tooth, making it less likely for bacteria to attach.
Cavities are most often associated with the occlusal (chewing) surfaces of molars. Therefore, dental sealants are most often recommended for molars and sometimes premolars.
Who benefits from dental sealants?
Sealants are often recommended for children, adolescents, and teens with erupted permanent molars. This age population is also still learning proper oral hygiene techniques, meaning their risk for cavities is greater. However, everyone can benefit from sealants. The sooner the sealant is placed, the smaller the risk of developing a cavity.
According to the United States National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, 42% of children between 2 and 11 have experienced cavities in their baby teeth. According to the same survey, 21% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 presented with cavities in their permanent teeth.
The first set of permanent molars begins to erupt around age 6, and the second set erupts around age 12. While dental sealants are not limited to permanent teeth, they are often recommended once the permanent molar has erupted. Children with their primary (baby) molars that present with rough or deeper grooves may also benefit from dental sealants.
Simply put, dental sealants are recommended for tooth surfaces at risk of attracting bacteria.
How are dental sealants applied?
The process of applying dental sealants is easy and pain-free. There is no need for local anesthetic when sealants are placed. Most sealant materials require a dry field, meaning saliva must be controlled during placement.
Prior to sealant placement, the tooth must be cleaned, and any food or bacteria must be removed. To do this, the tooth surfaces being sealed will first be polished with a non-flavor, pumice paste. A phosphoric acid etch is then applied to create a rough surface to attach the sealant. This acid etch is rinsed after 30 seconds of resting on the tooth and dried to give the tooth a chalky white appearance. A bonding agent may be used prior to placing the sealant material to aid in longevity. Next, the sealant material is thinly applied to not interfere with how the teeth occlude together. A special curing light is then used to harden the sealant onto the tooth.
What is the life expectancy of a dental sealant?
How long a sealant remains on a tooth is dependent on many factors. With that being said, a time frame for how long a sealant lasts cannot be predicted.
Sealant longevity can be affected by oral habits, such as grinding, clenching, or chewing on objects. Sealants may also be affected by one's diet, such as eating foods that are sticky, hard, and require a lot of crunching (sticky candies and crunching on ice). Sealants may be evaluated during a dental exam and possibly need repairing over time.
Do sealants take the place of good brushing, flossing, and routine dental visits?
Sealants are not the end-all, be-all of cavity prevention. It is important to remember that a sealant can only help prevent a cavity from forming on the surface it is placed. Therefore, a good brushing, flossing, and routine dental visits are critical in preventing cavities. Diet is also a significant factor in cavity prevention. Foods and liquids high in sugars and carbohydrates increase your caries (cavity) risk regardless if a sealant is present.
Dental sealants are considered a safe approach to caries prevention and are valuable towards reducing the percentages of children and adolescents suffering from dental decay at young ages. Research on dental sealants and their efficacy has shown an 80% reduction in cavities when applied to the occlusal (chewing) surfaces of permanent molars in children and adolescents. Be sure to look for sustainable products such as Grin Natural's Oral Care Pack to help prevent cavities and encourage excitement around good oral health.
About the author: Kristen Cockrell, MS, RDH
Kristen Cockrell is a mother to two boys and a Registered Dental Hygienist with a passion for preventive pediatric dentistry and oral health education. Kristen recently completed a master’s degree in dental hygiene education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Photo credits to our beautiful Grin mama @ourlittlesquares__