The basics of tooth enamel

Tooth enamel is the hard, mineralised and semi-translucent outer layer of your teeth. It plays an important role in protecting your teeth by forming a strong barrier around your inner teeth – against the effects of eating and drinking.

The functions of enamel range from insulating the sensitive inner layers of your teeth from extreme temperatures to preventing tooth decay as a result of plaque bacteria.

Despite your tooth enamel being the hardest mineralised substance in the human body – which allows your teeth to withstand a lifetime of biting, chewing and grinding – it can still chip, crack, dissolve, decay and erode.

Should any of these damaging conditions occur or develop, your tooth enamel may continue to break down. If your tooth enamel layer is compromised in this way, then the inner tissue and nerve structures within your teeth are exposed and at risk of damage.

The thickness of your tooth enamel varies between 0.5 and 2.5 mm. That’s quite a thin protective layer considering all the wear and tear that your teeth have to endure over a lifetime.

In addition, your tooth enamel formation only occurs during the development of your teeth as a child. Enamel can never regenerate or be repaired by the body – unlike a broken bone. Once it’s lost, you will never get it back. Once that happens, enamel can only be replaced artificially with sealants, fillings, inlays/onlays or crowns.

How does enamel loss happen?

Due to the high mineral content of your tooth enamel, it is susceptible to the process of demineralisation. Demineralisation occurs when tooth enamel is constantly exposed to high levels of acid which may result in dental erosion and/or decay.

Some foods and drinks are highly acidic in nature, whereas other forms of acid may be a by-product of bacterial plaque (see below).


There are several ways acid can build up in your mouth:

  • eating a diet high in fermentable carbohydrates, which includes food and drinks high in refined carbohydrates and/or sugar
  • having a dry mouth condition or low levels of salivary flow
  • frequent vomiting (e.g. from bulimia) or acid reflux
  • certain medications (e.g. aspirin and antihistamines)
  • failure to maintain good oral health care and hygiene

Your tooth enamel can also erode from the combined effects of friction (attrition), stress fractures (abfraction), and wear and tear (abrasion).

How can tooth enamel be protected?

There are a number of ways to protect and safeguard your tooth enamel:

  • Always use fluoridated toothpaste. It can help strengthen and protect your teeth from the effects of acid.
  • Regular brushing and flossing helps to remove acid-forming bacterial plaque and trapped food residue.
  • Delay brushing your teeth for at least 30 minutes after eating. Eating acidic foods softens and weakens tooth enamel temporarily. Brushing too soon can damage tooth enamel more easily.
  • See your dentist for regular check-ups and cleans every six months.
  • Reduce, if not eliminate, consumption of all foods and drinks that are high in refined carbohydrates(starches) and sugar.
  • Avoid snacking or “grazing”. Keeping your mouth immersed in a bath of refined sugars and starches for hours on end is comparable to soaking your teeth in battery acid.
  • Use a straw to consume sugary drinks. You can still direct the liquid to flow over your tongue. That way, you can still enjoy the taste without immersing your teeth in an “acid” bath.
  • Drink lots of water, and rinse your mouth with water after meals to flush away food debris.

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