Basic Chemistry of Tooth Erosion and Substances to Avoid

After you’ve finished that bottle of cola you’ve been craving, what do you notice? I’m sure none of us are new to that grating feeling on our teeth after some refreshing cola. Have you ever asked yourself what exactly is happening during that moment? In this article, we will be exploring tooth erosion in our everyday life. We will use science and numerous other research to uncover its mechanisms. To supplement this idea, we will also discuss actual beverages that may lead to tooth erosion. After identifying them, we will move on to preventive measures to minimize tooth erosion and its effects.


The Science Behind Tooth Erosion

Before we move on to the chemistry behind it, let’s clear something up first. Tooth erosion refers to the wearing down of the teeth due to acids from the substances passing through our mouth. On the other hand, tooth decay refers to the wearing down of the teeth due to acids from bacteria.

Most people are more familiar with tooth decay rather than tooth erosion. In fact, a Norwegian survey concluded that a high percentage of 850 high school students don’t know about tooth erosion. Meanwhile, those who do know about it lessen their consumption of acidic beverages.

How exactly do acids affect our teeth? Acids are very reactive because they possess extra hydrogen ions that they naturally do not want. In turn, when opportunity strikes, they immediately donate these ions to their surroundings. Our teeth turn out to be a perfect environment for these donations.

Our teeth consist of different minerals forming the crystal structure that we see. These minerals include calcium, sodium, phosphate ions, and carbonate ions. Carbonate and phosphate ions are especially reactive with hydrogen ions. Once they combine, the carbonate and phosphate ions break off from the crystal structure of the teeth. This results in tiny surface etches. Over time, this crystal structure degrades the protective layer of the teeth.


Beverages And Conditions That Can Cause Teeth Erosion

The level of tooth erosion depends on the strength of the acid present in the substance. Common acids that can damage our teeth are acetic, lactic, citric, phosphoric, tartaric, carbonic, and oxalic acids. 

Each of these interacts differently with our teeth. The most common and one of the strongest is citric acid. Citric acid reacts strongly because, aside from hydrogen ions, citrate ions also interact with the calcium in our teeth. Common beverages that contain citric acid are pineapple juice, fresh apple juice, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh orange juice, cola beverages, red wine, and white wine. 

Aside from beverages, there are also physiological conditions that invite acids to the teeth. This happens when acid from one’s stomach reaches the oral cavity. The following are conditions that can cause tooth erosion:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD): a digestive condition where acid from the stomach flows back to the mouth. Tooth erosion depends on the frequency of acid regurgitation. 
  • Bulimia: an eating disorder where patients self-induce vomiting to maintain their weight. Vomit also contains stomach acids that can cause tooth erosion.
  • Chronic Alcoholism: heavy alcohol consumption can also induce vomiting and acid regurgitation. 
  • Pregnancy: while rare, pregnant women may also experience vomiting for long periods. 


Can Teeth Erosion Be Reversed?

Although teeth erosion occurs gradually, treatment of its advanced stages is difficult both for the patient and the doctor. Patients with dental erosion often deal with physiological and esthetic problems. This can affect their well-being. At the same time, advanced treatment is extremely resource-consuming and requires complex therapeutic strategies. Preparatory measures can lead to extensive loss of dental tissues. 

Because of these factors, doctors recommend preventive measures rather than treatment. However, there is no general preventive measure for everyone. Each case for teeth erosion is different. Cases may include those with physiological conditions as well as those with acidic diets. For this, a diagnosis and evaluation from your dentist are necessary. 

Even if each case is different, technology has allowed more accurate and precise forms of diagnosis for dental erosion. Currently, researchers are developing a multi-functional imaging technique called Scanning Ion Conductance Microscopy. It involves using protons on the teeth surface to see and locate etches due to acid erosion. This can allow doctors to explore and quantify erosive damage and provide precise preventive measures. 


Preventive Measures Against Teeth Erosion

You can expect several preventive measures against dental erosion as you consult your doctor. Some of them are familiar, and some may not. The following are some specifically-tailored preventive programs you may expect during your visit.

As previously discussed, acidic beverages can result in tooth erosion. Here are some tips when drinking acidic food and beverages: 

  • Avoid treating your teeth with abrasive materials too much.
  • Reduce consumption of acidic beverages, especially before sleeping at night. 
  • Avoid holding or swishing acidic beverages in your mouth. It is preferable to use straws, so the drink does not touch your teeth.
  • Do not brush your teeth immediately after acid contact, such as vomiting. Rinse with baking soda solution, milk, or water first.
  • Additionally, do not brush your teeth before acid contact.
  • Use a soft toothbrush. Also, use toothpaste with low abrasion fluorides. High abrasion fluorides can destroy the teeth’s protective pellicles. 

Fluoride regimens are other programs that may help with tooth erosion. Fluorides are present in your toothpaste as they can prevent acidic interactions in the teeth. Other than toothpaste, these may come in different forms, such as fluoride gel and fluoride solutions. 

Our saliva also comes into play as a preventive measure against the mouth’s acidic environment. The opposite of acidic is basic, and our saliva is relatively basic. After you take in acidic food or beverages, chewing gum can stimulate saliva production. As you chew gum, you produce saliva that gradually makes the mouth environment less acidic. Simply make sure that the gum itself is not acidic. Lozenges can also be a substitute for stimulating saliva flow.