Dental sealants are thin plastic coatings dentists apply over teeth that may be at high risk of decay, such as newly emerged molars in children. By sinking into pits and fissures in these teeth, the sealant lines and protects them from the bacteria and acids that cause cavities. Sealing teeth is a simple and painless procedure.
How Do Dentists Seal Teeth?
Dentists and dental hygienists can usually seal teeth in a single visit. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research explains there are six stages to sealing teeth with traditional, resin-based sealants. The first three prepare the tooth to receive this material:
To help provide a good seal, dentists and dental hygienists must first remove the plaque and food debris that may still be hiding in the pits and fissures of the teeth. To do this, they clean them with a brush and pumice paste. Drying and isolation come next. Because resin-based sealant is only effective when applied to dry teeth, dentists dry the surfaces with a small air syringe that blows a gentle stream of air. To protect the tooth from saliva, they then isolate it from the rest of the mouth, usually by surrounding it with cotton rolls.
Etching is the third step, and provides the slightly rough surface that helps resin-based sealant bond well with the tooth surface. Etchant material is applied and left on the tooth for about 15 seconds, according to the University of Nebraska.
Fourth in this process is rinsing. When the etchant has done its job, the dentist rinses it off, dries the tooth and isolates it again with cotton rolls. Then comes applying the sealant itself. Sealant is a liquid that sets into a solid, plastic film on the tooth. The dentist or dental hygienist brushes the liquid onto the tooth's surface and guides it into the pits and fissures.
Some sealants set by themselves in a few seconds, whereas others require a concentrated UV light. If the sealant sets under light, the dentist shines the light for about 30 seconds – the final stage of the process.
Dental sealants usually last several years, but should be checked at regular dental visits. Keep in mind that although dental sealants protect pits and fissures in teeth, they are not a substitute for a good oral care routine. Brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste such as Colgate TotalSF Advanced Deep Clean, and flossing regularly, are essential to preventing cavities with or without the presence of a sealant.
Dentists may also seal teeth with glass ionomer sealants, which are different from resin-based sealants and require a different application method. Glass ionomer sealants stick to wet surfaces, so there is no need to dry the tooth before applying them. Donald E. Antonson, DDS, M.Ed. explains that glass ionomer sealants are often the best choice for teeth that are difficult to isolate and keep dry, such as molars that haven't fully emerged from the gum.
There is also no need to etch the tooth's surface when applying glass ionomer sealants. Instead, dentists apply a conditioning agent. Some glass ionomer sealants set without light, but light-curing can reduce the setting time to as little as 20 to 40 seconds depending on the nature of your restoration, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.
Dentists most often apply dental sealants to the teeth of children from ages six to 12, but older kids and adults can also benefit. The procedure costs very little and is over quickly. If you think dental sealants might be the right choice for you, feel free to talk to your dentist.
This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.