Tooth Enamel: What is It?

Dentists talk a lot about caring for your enamel, if you have braces, your orthodontist probably harps on that topic all the time. But what exactly is tooth enamel? Good question. The long answer is found in journal articles full of chemical formulas that would make your eyes glaze over, so we’re going to try to go with the short answer here. Enamel is a mineral compound. I know, I know. What does that mean? I mean, what are minerals? (Can you begin to see why this is journal article material?) OK. So let’s try this again: enamel is basically a complex form of calcium called hydroxyapatite.

Most of us are familiar with calcium. We know that calcium is one of the main components of our bones and that calcium keeps our bones strong and healthy. When you think of it that way, it makes sense that your enamel, which is the hardest substance in your body, has a really high level of calcium in it.

We don’t really want to get into a chemistry lesson here, but basically, your tooth enamel is about 99% mineral and only 1% organic matter. (By way of comparison, your bones are roughly 80% mineral and 20% organic matter.) So, basically, your enamel is extremely tough (like rock) and is only susceptible to chemical processes attacks that break down the molecule compounds. When bacteria and acids attack the teeth, what’s actually going on is little chemical reactions that are stealing molecules from your enamel and therefore weakening it. Unfortunately, the body can’t replace or repair enamel on its own, so once there’s a hole in your enamel the sensitive parts of your tooth are going to be vulnerable. The reason fluoride is good for your enamel is that it has molecules to share and can replace some of those stolen molecules and restabilize the enamel.

So when your orthodontist tells you to take care of your enamel, what they mean is the even the toughest part of your body needs some TLC and caring for your enamel while you have braces is especially important, since it’s so easy for food and enamel-eating bacteria to settle in around your brackets and cause damage at an even faster rate than normal. Staying away from acid-causing foods, brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste, and flossing are the best ways of taking care of your enamel. Help your enamel stick with you for life!

P.S. Here’s a fun fact for you: enamel is translucent. So, although we tend to think that our teeth are the color of our enamel, the reality is that the dentin (the part of the tooth under the enamel) is actually primarily responsible for what color teeth a person has. Sometimes things like coffee or tea can cause surface stains on the enamel and affect tooth color but that’s a little different.