What are dental sealants?

Dental sealants are thin, plastic films bonded to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth - molars and premolars - and are highly effective in the prevention of tooth decay (caries, cavities). Dental sealants are particularly effective on the back teeth, as the back teeth contain more hard-to-reach pits and grooves that serve as a host to food debris and bacteria.

How effective are dental sealants?

Because the sealants act as a physical barrier to decay and bacteria, in most cases, they provide 100 percent protection. The most important variable is how well the dental sealant adheres to the teeth. In addition, research has shown that sealants actually stop cavities when placed on top of a slightly decayed tooth. This action seals off the supply of nutrients to the bacteria that causes the cavity. The dental sealant becomes ineffective when all or part of the bond between the tooth and the sealant is broken.

Who are likely candidates for dental sealants?

Sealants are especially beneficial for children because their newly erupted, permanent teeth are most susceptible to cavities and least benefited by fluoride. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sealants should be used as part of a child's total preventive dental care. However, the CDC reports about only one-third of children between the ages of 6 and 19 have dental sealants. A complete preventive dental program includes sealants, fluoride, plaque removal, good home care, careful food choices, and regular dental care. Many young adults can also benefit from dental sealants. 

In addition, sealants help to maintain the health of teeth. Each time a tooth is filled due to tooth decay, additional tooth structure is lost. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fillings last an average of six to eight years, after which time they need to be replaced. Therefore, sealants often save time, money, reduce the discomfort associated with dental treatment procedures, and keep the tooth healthy.

What does the procedure involve?

The procedure starts with cleaning the surface of the tooth, rinsing the surface to remove all traces of the cleaning agent, and drying the tooth. An acidic solution or gel is applied to the surface of the tooth, including the pits and grooves, to make the surface of the tooth rough. After several seconds, the solution is thoroughly rinsed away with water and the site is dried. The liquid sealant is then applied and allowed to harden, or hardened with a special blue light (curing light).

With proper oral hygiene, sealants may last five to 10 years. If sealants are chipped or lost, they can be easily reapplied.