You use them every day; your doctor tells you to take good care of them; but do you really understand your teeth? Knowing what your teeth are made of and why they’re important can help you appreciate their value and motivate you to take proper care of them. Remember – you only get one set of teeth!
What They’re Made Of
Your teeth are the hardest part of your body – harder than bone, although easier to chip and break because they’re not guarded by muscle and other tissues. Your teeth have been evolutionarily designed to become the ideal chewing and speaking mechanisms. A normal adult has 32 teeth: 8 incisors, 4 canines, 8 premolars, 8 molars, and 4 wisdom teeth.
During your dental checkup, you may hear your dentist use these words to describe the parts of your teeth.
- Enamel: the outer layer of the tooth, made up of calcium phosphate; the part of the tooth that points toward the opposite layer of teeth is called the “crown”
- Dentin: the layer under the enamel, made of living cells that secrete a mineral substance that strengthens enamel
- Pulp: the soft, living inner part of the tooth, containing blood vessels and nerves
Ligaments and other connective tissues bind the tooth root to the jawbone and the gums
The enamel of your teeth helps protect the softer, more vulnerable layers within, and when your enamel wears away, it can’t “grow” back; taking proper care of your enamel is essential for healthy teeth.
What Happens if I Don’t Take Care of My Teeth?
Although root canals and other less-invasive procedures can leave most of your original teeth intact, for the most part, teeth that suffer from tooth decay can’t be repaired and must be partially or completely replaced with an artificial substitute. The most common complications for people who don’t properly care for their teeth are:
- Tooth decay, including cavities: Cavities are small holes or dents that form in your teeth. Certain foods and bacteria can break down the enamel more quickly and can eat away at your teeth, endangering the sensitive nerve endings.
- Plaque and tartar: Plaque, a clear film left behind by food and bacteria, can turn into a hard tartar on your teeth, which wear away enamel and can cause tooth decay and infections.
- Gingivitis: Inflammation of the gums, usually caused by tartar buildup, can lead to bleeding and infections.
- Periodontitis: Think of periodontitis as gingivitis where you can’t see it; periodontitis develops under the gums and can affect the sensitive roots of your teeth.
How Do I Care for My Teeth?
Taking proper care of your teeth is essential for good oral and overall health. Follow your dentist’s instructions, including checking in biennially for a deep cleaning and health assessment.
- Brushing: use a soft-bristled toothbrush recommended by your dentist, and brush at least twice daily.
- Flossing: at least once a day, use a dentist-approved floss to clean the space in between your teeth where your toothbrush can’t reach. The combination of brushing and flossing is imperative to prevent plaque buildup and dental complications.
- Rinsing with mouthwash: try an antibacterial mouthwash once or twice a day to keep bacteria buildup to a minimum. If you have sensitive teeth or gums, ask your dentist about mouthwashes specifically for people with sensitivity.
- Sealants: not just for children anymore, consider having your dentist apply a dental sealant to your teeth. This protective barrier can reduce your risk of cavities by up to 80%.
- Mouth guards: even when you’re playing a traditionally non-contact sport, you can still suffer injuries and blows to your face that can severely damage your teeth. Because you only get one set of real teeth in your lifetime, make sure you protect them well! Ask your dentist for a custom-fitted mouth guard, or try your local pharmacy for a cheaper option.