Sealants are thin, plastic coatings painted on the chewing surfaces of the back teeth. By covering the chewing surfaces of the molars, sealants keep out the germs and food that cause decay. They can be put on in dentists' offices, clinics, and sometimes in schools.
Sealants are painted on as a liquid and quickly harden to form a shield over the tooth, a process that is simple and painless. They are clear or tinted (tinted sealants are easier to see).
Children should get sealants on their permanent molars as soon as the teeth come in, before decay sets in. The first permanent molars come in between ages 5-7. The second permanent molars (12-year molars) come in between ages 11-14. Other teeth with pits and grooves—called premolars or bicuspids—which are located right in front of the molars, can also be sealed. Teenagers and adults without decay or fillings in their molars can also benefit from sealants.
Your dentist might also recommend having your child’s baby teeth sealed, especially if they have deep pits and grooves. Baby teeth play an important role in holding the correct spacing for permanent teeth, making it even more important to keep these teeth healthy so they do not fall out early.
The tooth is cleaned and dried, and cotton or other material is used to keep the tooth dry. An acidic solution is put on the tooth to roughen the surface so the sealant can stick. The tooth is then rinsed and dried. The sealant hardens in a few seconds after a liquid application or exposure to a special light. If a small cavity is accidentally covered by a sealant, decay won't spread because it is sealed off from food and germs.
Sealants can last up to 10 years, but they need to be checked at regular dental check-ups to make sure they are not chipped or worn away. More sealant material can be added to repair chips or worn sealants.
Having sealants put on healthy teeth now will save you money in the long run by avoiding fillings, crowns, or caps used to fix decayed teeth. The most important reason for getting sealants is to avoid tooth decay. Healthy teeth can last a lifetime. Also, researchers are becoming increasingly aware of the connection between tooth decay and other serious diseases in the body (for example, heart disease, premature birth). Maintaining healthy teeth is now believed to be an important part of maintaining good general health. Many insurance companies pay for sealants. Check with your company for details.
American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry
American Dental Association
Canadian Dental Association
The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association
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Dental sealants. American Dental Association Mouth Healthy website. Available at: http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/s/sealants.aspx. Accessed August 31, 2012.
Dental sealants in children (age 6 to 11). The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website. Available at: http://www.nidcr.n.... Updated March 25, 2011. Accessed August 31, 2012.
Oral health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov.... Updated July 29, 2011. Accessed August 31, 2012.
Seal out tooth decay. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website. Available at: http://www.nidcr.n.... Updated August 30, 2011. Accessed August 31, 2012.
Last reviewed August 2012 by Brian P. Randall, MD
Last Updated: August 31, 2012