Chemistry is a bit of a complicated topic. One small little difference or combination of elements can completely change a substance as we know it. Hydrogen and oxygen combine in a violent explosion to make something as innocent as water. Lithium is a metal used to create things like batteries, but it’s also used as a stabilizing medication for people with bipolar disorder.
Fluorine, number 9 on the periodic table, has a lot of uses. Some of them are polarizing. This highly reactive halogen was used to enrich uranium during the Manhattan Project. It’s also used to enrich your teeth in toothpaste.
Understanding the difference between fluorine and fluoride can help you reach a conclusion about whether or not you’re comfortable using a fluoride toothpaste, and can be the spark to help you find a better ingredient for oral care.
What is Fluorine?
Fluorine in its base state is an extremely toxic halogen gas. Fluorine occurs naturally in the mineral fluorite, which is the 13th most abundant mineral on the planet earth. It is an electronegative chemical element that is used to create a variety of products, medications, and weapons.
What is Fluorine Used For?
Isolating fluorine from fluorite is extremely dangerous. Early scientists who made the attempt were often significantly injured or even killed in the process, as fluorine in its base state is wildly reactive.
It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that a safe extraction method was discovered. Given the volatile nature of fluorine, extracted fluorine was predominantly used to enrich uranium for highly destructive nuclear weapons during World War II.
Derivatives of fluorine are used in about 20% of all modern medications. Fluorine’s reactive nature is often relied upon to strengthen the effects of broad spectrum antibiotics, cholesterol-lowering drugs, certain kinds of antidepressants, and some anesthetics.
What is Fluoride?
Fluoride is a negatively charged fluorine ion. Any product containing these negatively charged ions is referred to as “fluoridated.” Fluoridation doesn’t mean that something is infused with pure fluorine gas -- just the negatively charged ions.
What is Fluoride Used For?
Fluoride is often added to the American public water supply in cities and suburbs, and virtually every toothpaste approved by the American Dental Association. Research has shown that the addition of these negatively charged fluorine ions can help to prevent tooth decay by encouraging remineralization.
Fluoride reacts with the minerals present in our saliva (like calcium and phosphorus) and encourages them to bond to the enamel of the teeth. This creates a protective layer that delays tooth decay, helping to prevent cavities.
Is Fluorine Safe?
Fluorine in its pure form is absolutely and unequivocally unsafe. Its highly toxic and volatile nature is notorious for causing severe injury to death to people who come in contact with it. That’s why pure fluorine is only extracted and used to create weapons of mass destruction.
It’s important to consider that while pure fluorine is extremely dangerous, chemistry is a complex and fascinating thing. The aforementioned violent explosion that creates water and the dual purpose of lithium in batteries and psychiatric medications goes to demonstrate that elements can be processed in different ways with different results.
Is Fluoride Safe?
Fluoride’s safety is a somewhat controversial subject. While it is derived from a highly dangerous element, it does not contain the toxic gas used to enrich uranium. It’s merely negatively charged ions from the chemical element.
Fluoride has been studied by dentists and deemed safe to fortify teeth. Small amounts of fluoride are added to the public water supply and toothpaste to help strengthen teeth. Dentists sometimes prescribe higher concentrations of fluoride in the form of medicated mouthwashes to help people with structurally weak teeth.
There are risks associated with excessive fluoride consumption. The most severe side effect is a condition called skeletal fluorosis. Since fluoride is one of the most common substances, it’s naturally found in large amounts in rocks and dirt.
In countries where people heavily depend on groundwater for washing, cooking, and drinking, they’re usually ingesting high amounts of naturally present fluoride if they live in an area where it is heavily naturally present in the water, such as near the bases of mountains. Since fluoride is a non-necessary additive, the body doesn’t know how to use it. It isn’t like calcium, proteins, or vitamins. The body doesn’t have a need for it and it cannot properly remove large amounts from the system.
This leads to a mass accumulation of fluoride on the only surface it can stick to: the bones. Skeletal fluorosis is a condition that occurs when heavy deposits of fluoride build up in the bones, stiffening tendons and reducing range of motion. This condition is painful and incurable. People with skeletal fluorosis often depend on canes or other walking aids, as their legs no longer bend normally when they walk.
The lesser side effect is a condition called dental fluorosis, where fluoride accumulates on the adult teeth. Children who consume excessive amounts of fluoride before they’ve lost all of their baby teeth may find that when their adult teeth emerge, they’re a goldenrod shade and the surfaces are covered in irregular whitw markings or grooves. This is the result of excess fluoride attaching itself onto the teeth while they’re still developing within the gums.
Cosmetic treatments can be used to improve the appearance of dental fluorosis. While the condition itself may be unsightly, it isn’t inherently harmful. Most people with dental fluorosis are able to safely keep all of their adult teeth without an urgent need for extraction.
Preventing the Negative Side Effects of Fluoride
Most people in the United States will never be exposed to enough fluoride to cause skeletal fluorosis. When traveling, exclusively utilize non-fluoridated bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing your teeth. This prevents both excessive fluoride consumption and illnesses that can come from bacteria living in unclean water.
Children in the United States can still develop dental fluorosis from the fluoride in toothpaste. Most children’s toothpastes are formulated without fluoride to prevent fluorosis. Never allow a child to use adult fluoridated toothpaste until their adult teeth have fully emerged from their gums.
Are There Alternatives to Fluoride?
If you’re still uncomfortable with the idea of using fluoride in your toothpaste, you aren’t alone.
Many Americans have been looking to eliminate the controversial ingredient from their oral hygiene routines. Countries like China have banned or highly regulated fluoride to combat high levels of skeletal fluorosis. India is looking to remove as much fluoride from their water as possible, as their population is experiencing a widespread fluorosis epidemic. Most European countries do not fluoridate their water.
Many fluoride-free remineralizing toothpastes like Coral Toothpaste are becoming more and more available.
It’s important to note that “natural” does not automatically imply that a toothpaste is fluoride-free. Fluoride is a natural ingredient. Read the label to be sure your toothpaste specifies that it is formulated without fluoride.
Fluoride-free remineralizing toothpastes often use calcium and trace minerals that work with minerals naturally present in saliva to fortify weakened teeth while keeping them clean. SOur toothpaste also uses a plant-derived ingredient called xylitol, which helps to create a protective barrier over tooth enamel. This barrier helps to prevent further damage to the teeth when you eat and drink.
All toothpastes, whether or not they contain fluoride, work best when used twice a day for two minutes each. Floss and gentle mouthwash are also important additions to a well rounded dental hygiene routine. Removing or destroying the bacteria that contribute to tooth decay can help to slow the natural breakdown of teeth over time. Your enamel will stay stronger for longer, and you’ll reduce your chances of developing dental cavities.
In addition to regularly thoroughly cleaning your mouth, you’ll want to avoid excessive consumption of sugary or acidic foods that can contribute to tooth decay. Of course you cannot always avoid that beautiful homemade lasagna or an ice cream cone on a hot day. Just make sure you’re limiting your consumption of acids and sweets and thoroughly cleaning your mouth after you eat them.
Fluorine and fluoride are not the same thing, although fluoride does come from fluorine. Fluorine in its raw state is rightfully scary, but that’s not what’s in your toothpaste or your water.
If you’re uncomfortable with the risks associated with using fluoride, it’s easy to avoid fluoridated products. There are many excellent alternatives readily available. As long as you’re taking great care of your teeth and your dentist doesn’t object, you can switch to a fluoride-free toothpaste.