Fluoride is one of those words you may have heard your entire life without understanding exactly what it is. You probably know that it's got something to do with the health of your teeth. For many people, that's where their knowledge of fluoride stops. The first thing you should know about fluoride is that it's a mineral derived from a naturally occurring element called fluorine. Fluorine is the 13th most abundant element on Earth, and you'll find it all around us in the air and water.
There are many consumer products that contain fluoride, from fruit juices to pesticides. Chances are your tap water is also fluoridated, which is somewhat of a controversial topic. Some people believe that water fluoridation can lead to a host of diseases, including some kinds of cancer, although a clear link has never been proven. They also believe that it violates the ethical boundary of medical treatment without informed consent. Considering that the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control and Prevention are behind water fluoridation, it's not likely to change any time soon.
Something that has gotten a little less negative attention is the addition of fluoride to your toothpaste. While hard line anti-fluoride consumers avoid fluoride-enriched toothpaste, most people use it because it's been shown to help prevent cavities. It does so by maintaining your saliva which helps to prevent the buildup up the tooth plaque that leads to cavities. It also helps to guard against to loss of minerals useful to tooth enamel.
So, while everyone could benefit from a certain amount of fluoride per day to guard against tooth decay, the jury is still out on whether or not everyone needs it in their toothpaste. It largely depends on how many other sources you get your fluoride from.
One thing you may notice, though, is that your fluoride toothpaste has a label on it that warns against its use for kids ages 6 and under. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated in 1997 that all fluoride-enriched toothpastes contain this label because they found that children tended to swallow toothpaste more than adults, leading to an overabundance of fluoride in their system. Too much fluoride for kids can lead to a condition called enamel fluorosis, when the tooth enamel becomes discolored. It's recommended that children ages 2 and under not use fluoride toothpaste at all. Ingesting too much fluoride can even lead to poisoning and death, so always keep fluoride toothpaste out of reach and supervise your children when they brush their teeth.