Are you your tooth enamel's worst enemy?

Your teeth touch so many different things. Think about it: In any given day, you might sip coffee and tea, swig back water and pop, chomp on a wad of gum, and rake the bristles of your toothbrush across your teeth and drag waxy floss between them.

The thin, outer layer of hard tissue on your teeth is called enamel, and it helps protect the teeth from decay while maintaining the tooth's structure and shape. It also sees a lot of action - some of it good and some of it bad for its health and appearance. Even a few things you do with the best of intentions can do real damage!

Your saliva works to protect the enamel of your teeth from a small amount of the acid found in many foods and drinks. But if you eat or drink too much of certain types of foods and beverages, acid can build up to levels beyond your saliva's shielding powers and begin to weaken enamel.

When your tooth enamel erodes, the dentin underneath the enamel becomes visible, making your teeth look yellow and causing heightened sensitivity to heat, cold, and strong flavours.

Enamel wear can be easily avoided. Just think about the foods and drinks you consume and your oral hygiene habits. How bad of an enamel enemy are you anyway? Learn more about things that can erode enamel in "6 sipping and snacking habits that erode enamel."

6 sipping and snacking habits that erode enamel

  • Do you eat a lot of fruit? Not to give fruit a bad name, but fruits like plums, pomegranates, grapes, lemons, and limes, though otherwise very nutritious, all contain high levels of citric, malic, or tartaric acid. And too much acid like this can erode the enamel of the teeth.
  • Do you eat a lot of pickles, yogurt, or other fermented foods? Like fruits, yogurt and pickles are quite acidic, containing lactic acid. Eaten too often, these high-acid foods can impede the mouth's own efforts to defend against acid erosion.
  • Do you drink lots of soft drinks, juice, or sports drinks? As more and more people have taken to drinking pop, dentists notice more and more enamel erosion. Cola-based soft drinks contain phosphoric acid, while non-cola drinks - usually clear, bubbly concoctions with lemon or lime flavours - feature citric acid. Though they tend to have higher pH levels (meaning less acidity), the citric acid in non-cola soft drinks has been shown to be especially bad for the enamel.
  • Do you like to drink pop when you're thirsty? Ah, a crisp, cold soft drink sounds so nice when you're parched, doesn't it? But when you're at your thirstiest, your mouth may be quite dry and low on protective saliva. Without the saliva to neutralize acid, swigging pop would be one of the worst things you could do for your teeth. Drink water instead!
  • Are you a wine connoisseur? Since it comes from grapes, which are acidic, wine naturally contains acid that can wear down tooth enamel. For less acidic wine, opt for an Italian red, which seems to have a less corrosive effect than French wine or white wine. And unless you're a professional wine-taster, try not to swish wine around in your mouth for too long. Swishing splashes the wine all over your teeth, bathing them in acid.
  • Do you like a good nightcap? If you're going to drink wine, pop, juice, or sports drinks, give yourself a couple of hours before heading to bed. Just like swishing, sipping on acidic drinks before bed means that your teeth will spend hours in contact with corrosive acids. Brush before hitting the pillow, but be sure to wait about an hour after drinking to brush. Brushing immediately after consuming acidic foods or drinks is not advised since the enamel remains soft after a potentially erosion-causing activity, making the enamel susceptible to mechanical wears and tears.


8 habits that can damage your teeth

  • Do you brush your teeth right after eating or drinking something acidic? Give your teeth some time. If you brush immediately after eating or drinking, you may cause tooth wear because the enamel is softened by the acid. After an hour or so, brush gently with a soft-bristled brush.
  • Do you brush your teeth before eating or drinking something acidic? This probably doesn't happen too often, but if you do, you should stop. Brushing teeth immediately before drinking or eating something acidic brushes away the saliva that protects your enamel from acid.
  • Do you brush your teeth too vigorously? It would seem like a good idea to brush hard, to scrub away all the remnants of food you've eaten. But brushing too vigorously can wear down and weaken a tooth's enamel. Instead, brush teeth gently, using circular strokes and a soft-bristled brush.
  • Do you grit and grind your teeth? Everyone grits their teeth now and then - when you're lifting something heavy maybe, or when you're feeling stressed - and some people grind their teeth while they sleep, a condition called sleep bruxism. Any type of tooth-to-tooth clenching can wear down the teeth.
  • Do you take any type of medication regularly? Many types of medications can cause dry mouth. When your mouth lacks moisture, your teeth become more vulnerable to eroding enamel and all of the cavities and gum problems that can develop. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of the medications you take can dry up your protective saliva. You may be able to take action to prevent dry mouth from damaging your teeth.
  • Do you experience frequent bouts of heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)? Your digestive system churns with acids. When the acids find their way back up into you mouth via burping or reflux, your tooth enamel may be damaged.
  • Do you vomit frequently? As with heartburn or GERD, frequent vomiting exposes your teeth to many digestive acids. People with eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia may induce vomiting, but it can also be a symptom or complication of different illnesses, conditions (e.g., "morning sickness" during pregnancy), treatments, and medications
  • Do you swim in chlorinated pools often? The chemicals and chlorine in swimming pools have been found to be corrosive to tooth enamel over time. But you would have to gulp up a lot of chlorinated pool water for it to have much effect. Still, if you spend time in the pool, avoid taking the water into your mouth.

Tooth enamel TLC

A healthy flow of saliva can usually do the job of clearing the potentially damaging acids from your teeth and gums. You can help prevent the erosion of your tooth enamel, too.

  • Minimize your consumption of acidic drinks, including soft drinks, juice, sports drinks, and wine. Switch your pop for water.
  • If you must drink acid-rich drinks, sip through a straw. Position the straw toward the back of your mouth rather than letting the flow of liquid wash over the surface of your teeth.
  • And if you must drink pop, opt for root beer. In research studies, it seemed to have a less corrosive effect on tooth enamel than other types of pop.
  • Don't swish acidic drinks around in your mouth or hold acidic foods in your mouth for too long. The longer the contact between acid and enamel, the more damage may be done.
  • Chew on sugarless gum to stimulate protective saliva.
  • Rinse your mouth with water, sip milk, or munch on cheese after you eat something acidic.
  • Brush with a baking soda solution or swish an acid-neutralizing fluoride rinse.
  • Brush gently with a soft-bristled toothbrush, using gentle circular strokes.