What Is Tooth Enamel and Why Is Protecting It So Important?

Jamie J. Alexander on March 9, 2022

Enamel is the hard outer covering of a tooth. Enamel protects the inside of your teeth from infection and injury. It insulates tooth roots from painful temperatures. It provides strength so your teeth can bite, chew, and grind.

Although enamel is the hardest tissue in the human body, it is brittle enough to chip. The minerals that compose dental enamel can be eroded by acid in foods and beverages and by the acid produced by bacteria that feed on carbohydrates left on teeth and caught in gum pockets. 

When enamel is not protected with daily, good oral hygiene and periodic professional dental cleanings, a sticky substance called plaque build up on teeth. Plaque contains saliva and lives bacteria that feed on the carbohydrates that are left behind from the food and drink you consume. Sometimes the bacteria in plaque changes food starches into acids. When this happens, the acids in plaque start to eat away at the minerals in the tooth enamel, if that erosion continues tiny pits in the enamel can become larger cavities.

“Dental decay is the active process of enamel erosion,” says Dr. Jamie Alexander. “Finding dental decay as early as possible minimizes treatment to stop the erosion and repair the enamel. When our patients stay on a regular schedule of dental cleanings and exams every six months, we can find decay and other types of enamel damage early. Although fluoride toothpaste and topical application of fluoride strengthen enamel, once decay has pitted the enamel, decay will continue to advance in the pits until the decay is removed and the tooth is restored with a filling or other type of dental restoration.”

The Ways Tooth Enamel Can Be Damaged

Erosion

Because oral bacteria that feed on carbohydrates in the mouth thrive on sugary foods, a diet high in sugar increases the risk of dental decay. Many soft drinks and fruit juices are not only high in sugar but also acidic and gradually erode enamel. Acid reflux and bulimia are two health conditions that bring stomach acids up to the mouth where they can damage enamel. Medications can also make the mouth acidic and reduce saliva production that helps neutralize the acid. Teeth damaged by significant enamel erosion can be restored with veneers and crowns.

Discoloration

When enamel erodes it can take on a gray appearance due to mineral loss. Enamel can be stained by coffee, tea, cola, red wine, fruit juices, and tobacco usage. Regular visits to our dental office for our hygienist to clean and polish your teeth can help remove most surface stains. We can recommend teeth whitening products for at-home use and performance, also called teeth bleaching, in our office. And if your teeth have turned gray from erosion, veneers, and crowns can be used to repair your smile and strengthen your teeth.

Wear & Tear

You may have noticed your teeth or a loved one’s teeth becoming shorter over time. You may have noticed the cusps of teeth flattening. As people use their teeth throughout the years the enamel wears away from chewing, biting, and grinding foods and from the teeth coming into contact at other times. 

Some people are tougher on their teeth than average, and their enamel undergoes attrition faster. These people often have TMD symptoms due to the greater loading forces of their teeth coming into contact. In this case, symptoms and excessive wear can be minimized by repositioning teeth or altering the tops of the teeth to remove occlusal contacts on the back teeth and distribute the forces across more surface area. 

Repeated forces can fracture enamel.

Fractures in enamel weaken it. With continued wear and tear, the enamel may break into pieces and sometimes lead to tooth loss. When enamel wears thin or fractures, teeth can become sensitive to hot and cold. Fractures in the enamel provide openings for bacteria to enter the tooth making it more susceptible to decay and painful infection of the roots. By seeing the dentist every six months, you will be informed about changes occurring in your enamel and given treatment guidance. We can come up with a treatment plan to minimize future damage.

Macro Trauma

An impact injury can easily chip and fracture enamel. Custom sports mouthguards are an ideal solution for predictably higher-risk situations. 

What Can You Do to Protect Your Enamel?

The responsibility to protect you enamel lies with you. And the more you protect it, the less dentistry you will need as you age.

  • Do you brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss daily? If you are prone to gum inflammation or plaque buildup, daily water flossing is an additional preventive measure.
  • Do you eat a healthy, low-sugar diet?
  • Do you visit the dentist and hygienist every six months for professional dental cleanings and checkups?
  • Do you agree to have periodic dental x-rays?
  • Do you accept recommended dental treatments to protect and/or repair your teeth?

If you are eroding or wearing away enamel, you may be advised to have topical fluoride treatments, use a toothpaste made for sensitive teeth such as Sensodyne, undergo a course of orthodontics to move teeth into positions that will reduce and redistribute forces, have the tops of your teeth occlusally adjusted to reduce and redistribute forces, and/or have certain teeth crowned to protect them. If you are a bruxer (someone who grinds their teeth during sleep), a protective nightguard will be recommended. If you have gum inflammation, appropriate clinical treatment and home care will be recommended. If you use tobacco, overuse alcohol, or frequently drink acidic or sugary beverages like colas, you may need to stop these behaviors altogether to save your enamel. 

“We have helped numerous patients who are in recovery for substance abuse and bulimia,” says Dr. Alexander. “We have a deep understanding of human emotions, PTSD and addiction behaviors, and systemic health issues that can influence a patient’s dental experience and ultimately, their acceptance of the dental care they need.”

Do You Have Enamel Concerns?

Give us a call to schedule a comprehensive dental health evaluation and consultation. In our compassionate and respectful care environment, you will learn about your oral health circumstances, the oral home care and dental care options that are in your best interest, and how to afford the dentistry you need.