We all know by now that regular brushing and flossing is the key to preventing tooth decay. As parents, teaching our children this twice-daily ritual is part of our job. But monitoring how well kids are taking care of their teeth can be hard. Because of this, bringing in some reinforcements can help. Tooth sealants are an extra layer that can help protect teeth, especially when tooth brushing and flossing may not be enough.

What is a tooth sealant?

Tooth sealants are a preventative measure dentists use to prevent cavities in children (and some adults). Painted on the teeth, dental sealants create a barrier between the tooth and any decay-causing material left over from brushing.

The benefits of dental sealants are clear. One study found that dental sealants reduced the risk of cavity on molars by 80%. Nine out of ten cavities appear on back molars, so this extra protection is crucial.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend dental sealants for all children, overall, 60% of children between the ages of six and 11 do not have them. Low-income children are less likely than their higher-income peers to have dental sealants.

The CDC estimates that providing tooth sealants to the seven million low-income children without them could save their parents up to $300 million dollars in dental treatments. Sealants can be applied by a dentist, dental hygienist, or any other certified professional in an office setting or mobile dental lab that can travel to schools and low-income neighborhoods.

Other dental care options

Tooth sealants are not the same type of dental treatment as dental fillings. Dental fillings are placed when decay has formed a cavity that must be drilled out. Unlike a filling that occurs after the fact, dental sealants prevent cavities before they form. In some cases, they can also prevent minor tooth decay from becoming a cavity.

Some parents opt for fluoride varnish instead of dental sealants. Fluoride varnish is also an important part of dental treatments for children, but they are not the same thing. Fluoride treatments follow the contours of the tooth while tooth sealants fill in pits and fissures in erupting molars. Tooth sealants create a physical barrier between the tooth and any cavity-causing particles. Fluoride is absorbed by teeth to create stronger enamel. Working together, these two treatments are powerful cavity prevention tools.

In general, children get sealants for teeth when their molars appear. The first set of molars usually erupts around age six, with the second set coming in at 12. At both of these ages, proper dental hygiene is challenging. Sealants fill in the gaps, literally and figuratively, to prevent cavities in new molars.

What can I expect during a dental sealants procedure?

The procedure for dental sealants is straightforward and painless. Your dentist will conduct a regular cleaning, flossing and brushing teeth as usual. If there is any decay, they will remove that as well.

Once the cleaning is done, they will dry your teeth and place a mildly acidic solution on the surfaces to be sealed. This solution etches the teeth slightly so that the tooth sealant adheres better and lasts longer.

Dental sealant is painted on with a brush and allowed to dry briefly before it is cured with a special light. This light sets the sealant and hardens it so that it lasts longer.

What material is used for sealants?

The dental sealant itself is a liquid coating made from plastics derived from Bisphenol A, commonly referred to as BPA.

These materials include bis-GMA and bis-DMA. While the initials “BPA” maybe alarming to parents, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finds that sealants for teeth, when properly applied, release little to no BPA and are thus safe. In fact, simply breathing the air around you is 100 times more harmful than dental sealants.

Most sealants are translucent a