Seal the Deal: Do dental sealants prevent cavities?

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You make sure your kids brush on a regular basis, avoid sticky candy and rinse their mouths with water after eating sugary treats if they can’t brush their teeth. You even wrangle with those little kid-friendly flossers from time to time. Is there anything else you could be doing to help prevent cavities?

Some would say yes: dental sealants. A dental sealant is a thin plastic coating, made of acrylic polymer, that is painted onto a tooth’s chewing surface, and it can be very helpful in preventing decay. “Teeth have bumps and grooves that are formed as they develop, much like the plates of a baby’s skull that come together in the months after birth,” says Toronto dentist Dr. Joe Simardone.

“Sometimes the fusion of the parts of the teeth is incomplete, and deep ‘pits’ are formed. These pits are open to holding bacteria and food, which makes them susceptible to cavities. A sealant will get into these grooves and pits, and seal them off, bonding into the tooth structure, and smoothing out what nature didn’t smooth out. And then the teeth become less retentive to bacteria.”

But do sealants actually prevent cavities? “No, I wouldn’t say that,” says Joe. “There is no substitute for the toothbrush and toothpaste. Sealants just make the surface of the tooth easier to keep clean.” And they’re not permanent. “Over time, with eating and chewing, they will wear away, and will need to be touched up by the dentist.”

Still, given the relative ease of application – the sealant is usually brushed on with a small paintbrush, or dropped out of a syringe onto the tooth, and it dries in a matter of seconds – and the relatively low cost of around $25 per tooth, having them done might seem like a no-brainer. A 2000 report by the Surgeon General in the U.S. found that dental sealants reduced tooth decay in students by more than 70 per cent. And this past September, Saskatchewan’s Oral Health Program introduced an in-school dental sealant program in a select number of schools in the province.

Joe only suggests sealants to “really susceptible people” – people with very deep natural pits in their teeth, or with very poor oral hygiene. But some other dentists and health care professionals recommend all children get them. After all, they can’t hurt. And how many dental procedures can you say that about?

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