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Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally in many foods and water. Every day, minerals are added to and lost from a tooth's enamel layer through two processes, demineralization and remineralization. Minerals are lost (demineralization) from a tooth's enamel layer when acids -- formed from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth -- attack the enamel. Minerals such as fluoride, calcium, and phosphate are redeposited (remineralization) to the enamel layer from the foods and waters consumed. Too much demineralization without enough remineralization to repair the enamel layer leads to tooth decay.
Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by making the tooth more resistant to acid attacks from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth. It also reverses early decay. In children under 6 years of age, fluoride becomes incorporated into the development of permanent teeth, making it difficult for acids to demineralize the teeth. Fluoride also helps speed remineralization as well as disrupts acid production in already erupted teeth of both children and adults.
As mentioned, fluoride is found in foods and in water. It can also be directly applied by a dentist. Topical fluorides such as foams, gels or varnishes are applied by a dentist and left on for a few minutes, usually during a cleaning treatment. Varnishes are painted on the teeth; foams are put into a mouth guard, which is applied to the teeth for one to four minutes; gels can be painted on or applied via a mouth guard. For patients with a high risk of cavities, the dentist may prescribe a special gel or toothpaste for daily home use.