What Does Sugar Do To Your Teeth And Gums?

Dr. Christopher Li Etobicoke - Li Family Dental

By Dr. Christopher Li

October 30, 2023

dental hygiene, gingivitis, preventative care, sugar's mechanism of action, tooth decay

We all know sugar is bad for your teeth. But exactly what does sugar do to your teeth and gums? The answer is actually quite surprising. Sugar’s “mechanism of action” is aggressive, causing damage more quickly than you might think. Here, we reveal the truth about what sugar does to your teeth, how it differs from artificial sweeteners, and ways to reduce damage when you can’t resist those sugar cravings. 

Understanding The Mechanism Of Action Of Sugar On Teeth

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Sugar is known as a “cariogenic” carb, meaning it causes tooth decay. Regardless of how you indulge in sugar, the issue lies in how it interacts with plaque bacteria. Plaque, a sticky substance consisting of tiny particles of food debris, saliva, and bacteria, sticks to your teeth and builds up over time. When you eat sugar, it comes into contact with plaque bacteria, causing a process that produces harmful acids.

These acids cause “demineralization”, removing essential minerals like calcium and phosphates from your tooth enamel. Your tooth enamel is the protective outer coating on teeth that helps prevent decay. However, it is no match for the damaging effects of constant acid exposure that causes enamel erosion.

Adding to sugar’s dangers, it also feeds harmful bacteria called Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sorbrinus. Both types of bacteria are notorious for contributing to dental plaque buildup, creating unhealthy pH levels. When pH levels are low, your mouth becomes highly acidic, causing ongoing enamel erosion. Although saliva is designed to help remineralize your teeth, saliva production must be healthy to restore calcium and phosphate. When harmful bacteria dominate your mouth, remineralization can’t take place. As a result, enamel erosion can speed up.

Without proper dental care, erosion and decay cause larger and deeper cavities, increasing the risk of infections, tooth abscesses, and, eventually, tooth loss.  

What Does Sugar Do To Your Teeth And Gums?

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Sugar also attracts bacteria that cause gingivitis and gum disease. As a result, your gums can recede, damaging the protective tissue that holds your teeth in place. The exposed area of your teeth is then more vulnerable to tooth decay, and the damage to protective tissue can lead to loosening teeth and tooth loss.  

Are Natural And Artificial Sugar Substitutes Bad For Your Teeth Also?

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Artificial sweeteners are non-cariogenic, meaning they won’t cause tooth decay like sugar. Your dentist might recommend chewing sugar-free gum, as the sweeteners can actually have an anti-cariogenic effect, helping prevent tooth decay. These sweeteners have the opposite effect of sugar, in that they reduce acidity. As a result, you can maintain a healthier pH balance in your saliva and decrease the amount of decay-causing bacteria in your mouth.

However, the acidic ingredients in many soft drinks can still cause issues for your teeth, even if they are sugar-free. These acids are just as bad for your teeth as sugar and should be avoided. The best drink for oral and overall health is always water. Water helps improve saliva production, rinses away debris that contributes to plaque buildup, and keeps your mouth moist for an acid-free environment with a healthy pH balance.  

How Much Sugar Is Considered “Safe” For Teeth?

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Because it is almost impossible to avoid sugar altogether, the recommended daily limit of sugar is 24 grams for women and 36 for men. The biggest challenge regarding sugar consumption is avoiding all the hidden sugars found in common foods and products you use daily. This might include ketchup, condiments like barbecue sauce, salad dressings, yogurts, etc., that you might not give much thought to.

Other culprits include processed foods, restaurant meals, and even seemingly healthy snacks such as low-fat options that often add more sugar to compensate for the less pleasing flavour of reduced fat. It helps to read the labels of the foods you buy to help keep track of sugar consumption. 

Tips To Help Protect Your Teeth From Sugar

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If you are worried about sugar’s effect on your teeth or find it too challenging to reduce sugar from your diet, you can rinse your mouth with water after eating or drinking something containing sugar. The acids produced by bacteria tend to be active for about 20 minutes, so by rinsing as soon as possible, you can reduce the acid and limit the damage it causes. Another good rule of thumb is to limit your sugar to a dessert following a meal instead of eating random sweet snacks throughout the day. 

Tips For Choosing Healthier Snacks To Avoid The Effects Of Sugar

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If you must snack, try healthier choices like dairy, raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, and protein. Since sugar and carbs combined create the perfect cariogenic storm, reaching for these healthier snack choices is a much safer bet. When snacking on sweet treats, avoid hard or sticky candy, as this leaves sugar in your mouth for a longer period of time, so the acids are active longer and can cause more damage.

If you want to savour something sweet, choose sugar-free gum. It comes in a wide variety of flavours that will help curb your candy craving. It will also help reverse the effects of sugar and damaging acids because of its anti-cariogenic properties. As mentioned, water is always the best drink to quench your thirst and will have positive effects, unlike pop, fruit juices, citrus-based drinks, or sports/energy drinks. 

Dental Hygiene To Combat The Effects Of Sugar On Teeth And Gums

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Finally, by ramping up your dental hygiene regime, you can make a big difference in combating the effects of sugar on teeth and gums. Brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and flossing before bed helps reduce acid in your mouth and strengthen tooth enamel to help make it acid and bacteria-resistant.

Sticking to your dentist’s recommended checkup schedule ensures you have regular professional dental cleanings to remove plaque buildup. You can also have a professional fluoride treatment to take advantage of its strengthening action to keep your teeth healthy.

Understanding the mechanism of action of sugar on teeth provides valuable insights into how harmful sugar is to your teeth and gums. You can use these tips to help protect your teeth and improve your oral health to maintain healthy teeth and gums for life.

Give us a call at 416-232-2033 or click here to request an appointment.

Dr. Christopher Li

About the author

Doctor Christopher Li, DDS
Dr. Chris, as he is affectionately known, is a licensed dentist with over 20 years experience. His caring personality makes even the most tentative person at ease. Patients are constantly commenting about how Dr. Chris is incredible at delivering pain-free freezing, and how he has an amazing chair-side manner.  Dr. Chris loves sharing information with his patients and everyone who has teeth about how to care for their teeth, avoid tooth decay, and the treatments available to help them overcome their tooth pain or other dental issues so they can enjoy life and food to its fullest!

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