You may have noticed bright white staining on some peoples teeth after they have their braces removed. These white areas are often permanent, and as an orthodontist it is very disappointing to see after after all the work we have done to get the alignment of the teeth so ideal. It is extremely important for patients and their parents to understand how these stains form, and what can be done to prevent them.
White spots occur on teeth by a process called decalcification, which will start on any tooth surface where plaque is allowed to sit for an extended period of time (often only several days). Dental plaque’s composition includes a large number of bacteria called Streptococcus Mutans, and Lactobacillus. When these bacteria reproduce and accumulate on the teeth, they appear as a white sticky film (like the bacteria in Petri dishes in school!). This plaque commonly forms and grows near the gum line and around braces if the bacteria are not removed. As living organisms, these bacteria feed on the sugars and carbohydrates that you place in your mouth. After feeding, these bacteria multiply and excrete acid as a waste product for up to 20 minutes. It is this acid excretion that dissolves enamel, and causes a loss of minerals in your teeth.
The white spot that forms is actually the first sign of tooth decay from the loss of minerals from your teeth. Often the outer layer of enamel is hardened from flouride, and the decalcification occurs below the surface of the tooth deeper into the enamel. This is why once damage occurs it is most often a permanent stain on the tooth. Left untreated, this stain can progress to a cavity and will need restoring (or “filling”) by a dentist.
Braces themselves do not cause staining or plaque to form, but they do present a physical barrier to brushing and increase the surface area for plaque to accumulate. This is why from your very first consult with us, we stress them importance of excellent hygiene and brushing technique. It sounds simple, but by just removing this plaque by proper brushing twice a day, these permanent white stains can totally be avoided. But as a father of two kids in braces, I know that most children are not “programmed” to think about medium to long term consequences of leaving plaque on teeth. Since myself and my staff often only see a patient every 6-7 weeks, monitoring the child’s plaque removal must involve the parents (this is probably the most important take home point in this article- I am an orthodontist and my own children need constant checking!) After teeth are perfectly clean, it only takes several days for plaque to build up, and in several weeks can start to permanently stain the teeth!
Several important things to remember:
When brushing, technique is just as important as time spent brushing! Parents often tell me that they see their kids brushing often, but at their orthodontic appointment there is heavy plaque. This is due to a pattern of brushing that consistently misses the same places over and over again. Even if some areas are spotless, the missed areas will form these permanent decalcification stains.
The most common areas that are missed when brushing teeth are near the gingival margin (where the teeth meet the gums), the sides of one or all of the braces on your teeth (which is why the white stains are often shaped in a halo- the braces have protected the enamel under the braces while the plaque surrounding the braces leaves a distinctive mark), and the upper lateral and canine on the side of a child’s dominant brushing hand.- this is usually where they “flip” the tooth brush. These are all points that we cover in depth after the braces are placed, when we review brushing and flossing. Please ask any of us at Meadows Orthodontics if you have any questions!
Once stains are present, they usually cannot be removed. There are several products on the market that claim to reduce white spot lesions, but the research on them have been largely non-conclusive to date. Prevention remains the best option! Other than plaque removal, reducing the amount of processed sugar ingested greatly reduces the chance of staining, as this removes plaque’s food source. The biggest offenders are sugar drinks, including soda, sports drinks, and even sipping on too much fruit juice. Fluoride rises (such as ACT) for at risk patients can often help. We also have a fluoride releasing protective sealant that can be applied for higher risk patients.
Remember, every patient is unique, and each child needs their own level of attention and motivation to ensure their teeth are protected as much as possible while they are wearing braces.
Dr. Dan Rejman is a Board Certified Diplomate of the ABO, and practices at Meadows Orthodontics in Castle Rock, CO.