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What is fluoride?

Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay. It can either be put on the surface of the teeth, or taken in through the water supply or supplements (called systemic fluoride). It also strengthens tooth enamel, and reduces the harmful effects of plaque. Fluoride makes the whole tooth resistant to decay. It also helps remineralization, which helps repair early tooth decay.

Boy being examined by dentist.

Where is fluoride found?

Topical fluoride

  • Products with fluoride, like most tooth pastes, mouth rinses

    • When your child's first tooth appears, use a very small amount of fluoride toothpaste, about the size of a grain of rice, to brush his or her teeth.

    • At about 3 years of age, use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste.

    • Rinses should not be used in children under 6 years old.

  • Fluoridated varnishes, gels, or foams put on the teeth by a dentist or other dental health professional

    • They may be applied every 3 to 6 months beginning when the first tooth appears.

Systemic fluoride

  • Public and private water supplies

  • Prescription supplements

  • Other sources may be tea, soft drinks, and some bottled water

Once ingested, fluoride is absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. It is then distributed and deposited throughout the body through the blood supply. It also returns to the mouth in the saliva to continually bathe the teeth in fluoride.

What health risks with fluoride use?

In general, fluoride is safe. Health risks of fluoride use are usually limited to misuse and over concentration. To avoid these risks:

  • Don't swallow toothpaste and other dental hygiene products.

  • Keep toothpaste out of young children's reach. Make sure you help your child with tooth brushing until he or she is 7 to 8 years old.

  • Call the local water department or the health department to find out about fluoride in your local drinking water. If your water is fluoridated, you won't need a fluoride supplement.

Children are most at risk for dental fluorosis. This is because developing teeth are more sensitive to fluoride. Dental fluorosis is not a disease, but rather how the teeth appear. The American Dental Association defines mild fluorosis as barely noticeable, faint, white lines or streaks on tooth enamel. The does not affect the health or function of the teeth. Fluorosis only occurs in developing teeth, not those that have already erupted. See a dentist or other oral healthcare provider if you see changes in your child's teeth.