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Effect of Citric Acid on Tooth Enamel

author image Donna Pleis, RDH, BSBA
Donna Pleis has been writing dental and health-related articles since 1991 when she began writing for a national publication called the “The Doctor’s Press.” She worked 18 years as a dental hygienist and many years in the insurance industry. Her education includes the University of Pittsburgh for dental hygiene and St. Joseph College for a degree in business administration.
Effect of Citric Acid on Tooth Enamel
A glass of orange juice on a wooden table. Photo Credit: kuponjabah/iStock/Getty Images

Lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits are tangy, nutritious and delicious. Vitamin C gives these fruits their nutritional punch and the citric acid content gives them tang and great taste. Citric acid is added to many foods and beverages because of its ability to boost flavor. It’s hard to imagine that these nutritionally beneficial fruits could be detrimental in anyway. But beware -- any foods and drinks that are high in citric acid can potentially damage your teeth over time.

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Erosion of Tooth Enamel

Lengthy and repeated exposure to citric acid and other acids in food and drinks causes tooth enamel to dissolve. This demineralization of the hard tooth surface is called erosion and can lead to tooth decay. When erosion has progressed into the softer, inner layer of your tooth, called the dentin, you will start to experience sensitivity and pain. Untreated erosion can eventually involve the nerve portion of your tooth resulting in the need for root canal treatment.

Risky Acidic Foods

Citrus fruits have a high concentration of citric acid as well as other fruits, fruit juices, and fruit products. Other acidic foods include pickled vegetables and foods that are fermented, such as wine and yogurt. Candies, sports drinks, canned ice teas, herbal teas and sodas commonly have added citric acid, as well as other acids that are harmful to tooth enamel. Carbonated sodas -- both regular and diet varieties -- have higher levels of acids and can be more harmful to your teeth than non-carbonated drinks. Because various acids are frequently added to food products to improve the taste, reading the food label may be the best way to determine the acid content.

Effects of Sugar and Acid Together

Carbonated sodas, energy drinks and sweetened ice teas have high concentrations of both sugars and acids, including citric acid. These drinks set up the perfect storm. Sugars from the sodas are sticky and adhere to your tooth surface as plaque. The bacteria in your mouth use these sugars in the plaque to produce acids. In addition, your teeth are exposed to the acids found in the drinks. If two sources of acids are not bad enough, the harmful effects of these acids on your teeth are significantly intensified if you have dry mouth or are very thirsty.

Reducing the Effects of Citric Acid

Limiting sodas and other acidic foods is recommended to avoid erosion, but there are a few other safeguards you can follow. Dentists advise regularly using toothpaste containing fluoride to strengthen and add hardness to your tooth enamel. Drinking acidic beverages through a straw positioned toward the back of your mouth can help reduce the risk of erosion by limiting the exposure of your teeth to the acid. However, your back teeth are still exposed. Rinsing with water for 30 seconds after eating or drinking helps wash away residual acid. Chewing sugarless gum after eating to stimulate saliva can also help neutralize the effects of acids in your mouth. Drinking acidic drinks during a meal rather than by themselves is less damaging to your enamel. And, it is better to drink a whole drink at one time rather than constant sipping.

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