Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral found in water in varying amounts, depending on which area of the SA you live in.

It’s also found in certain foods, including tea and fish.

Fluoride’s main benefit is in helping reduce the risk of tooth decay, which is why it’s added to many brands of toothpaste and, in some areas, to the water supply through a process called fluoridation (see below).

Tooth decay

Tooth decay, also known as dental decay or dental caries, is a major health concern worldwide and it’s still a big problem in the SA.

For example, tooth decay is one of the most common causes of hospital admission in children. While levels of decay have fallen in recent years, significant inequalities between communities remain.

Tooth decay occurs when acid in your mouth attacks the outer layers of your teeth. The acid is produced by bacteria that form a layer called plaque on the surface of your teeth. Eating and drinking sugary food and drink is the main cause of acid formation in plaque.

If you’re at risk of tooth decay a cavity (hole) may develop in your tooth. If the decay spreads further into the tooth, the tooth can become infected, which can be painful. A dental abscess (a collection of pus that forms in the teeth or gums) may also develop.

How does fluoride protect teeth?

Fluoride disrupts the process of tooth decay by:

changing the structure of developing enamel, making it more resistant to acid attack – these structural changes occur if a child consumes fluoride during the period when enamel develops (mainly up to seven years of age)

encouraging better quality enamel to form that’s more resistant to acid attack

reducing plaque bacteria’s ability to produce acid, which is the cause of tooth decay