Skip to main content

Tiny Bubbles, Big Problems?

Sparkling water

You go out to a fancy dinner. The waiter sits you down at your table and asks you this question, "Sparkling or still?" Seems like an innocuous choice to make, but is it really? Or could those little bubbles be damaging your teeth?

To begin with, we have to understand the structure of our teeth — particularly the enamel, which is the hard outer surface layer of the tooth. Our enamel is actually similar to most mammalian species and reptiles. It's made of minerals (calcium and phosphate) that are stacked to form a hard, crystallized structure. What puts our enamel at risk is not so much biting on tree bark (although we wouldn't recommend that), but the chemicals in our food.

"Our diet has evolved in the last 50 years to include higher levels of acid in our food," said Wyatt R. Hume, DDS, PhD, Dean of the University of Utah's School of Dentistry. Carbon dioxide becomes carbonic acid once it is dissolved in water, and that's what makes the drink bubbly. Once we consume an acidic drink, or food even, the acid reacts with the minerals in the enamel, causing it to soften. Some acids are stronger than others, depending on their pH level. Carbonic acid, which is seen in sparkling water, is mildly acidic, compared to phosphoric acid, which is seen in most fizzy drinks like Coca Cola and Pepsi.

Hume says it takes about 15 seconds for the acid to react with our teeth, causing it to break down the crystallized structure and weakening it entirely. Once your teeth are softened, even the act of brushing can worsen the situation. Dental corrosion or erosion is the weakening of the enamel. This is different from tooth decay, which is caused by bacteria in our mouth.

Dental corrosion is become an increasing problem for people today, Hume says. He recommends adding fluoride to our daily routine, whether it's using fluoride toothpaste or drinking fluoridated water. Fluoride makes the teeth less soluble, and 10 times more resistant to acidic corrosion.

Even after all that scary information, drinking the occasional Schweppes or San Pellegrino probably isn't the worst thing you can do for your teeth. But before you choose to do so, make a conscious note to have your teeth checked. Also, are you including fluoride in your toothpaste or water? If not, you should consider making the switch. But of course, the best thing is to stick with good old plain water.