How to protect kids' teeth without sacrificing Halloween fun

Halloween can do scary things to kids’ teeth. Every day, bacteria in plaque convert sugar to acid that eats away at enamel, causing cavities. But that late-October candy blast can send acid production into overdrive, putting teeth at risk.

Have no fear, says Dental Assisting Technology instructor Sherry Sand (class of ’85) – there’s no need to confiscate those precious treat troves (though letting kids stash them under beds for midnight snacks strikes her as a frightening prospect). “They can enjoy it,” says Sand. “They just need to know how to take care of their teeth.”

That can involve more than brushing. Here, Sand explains how some candies might be considered more “evil” than others for their power to promote tooth decay and what can be done to lessen the effects without taking the fun out of trick or treating.

A rotten ranking                                                         

Sugar content doesn’t vary much from one type of junk food to the next, Sand points out. What differs is how they interact with teeth. Here’s an unofficial ranking of candy categories from most likely to cause cavities to least.

Sticky stuff – Because they hold sugar directly against the tooth, sticky treats such as caramel are the most nefarious cavity causers. Even dried fruits such as raisins are cause for concern. “We all think of that as a healthy snack,” says Sand. Not necessarily.
Hard candies – while these don’t hold sugar against tooth surfaces, Sand still advises that kids be careful with them. “If they’re biting on the hard candies we can have teeth breakage.”
Potato chips These starchy treats are end up stuck in the pits and fissures in teeth where they are easily converted to sugar, then acid.
Chocolate Chocolate on its own – when not combined with sticky caramel, for example – isn’t so bad, as it doesn’t remain in contact with teeth for long.
Nuts – Compared to chocolate, plain nuts contain little sugar, though pieces can remain stuck to tooth surfaces like chips.
Gum “Of course, sugar free is recommended,” says Sand, pointing to natural xylitol as the best alternative sweetener. That said, even real sugar in gum won’t be in contact with teeth for the prolonged periods required for damage.

Counteract the impact

Rather than let kids introduce sugar to the teeth throughout the day, encourage them to save Halloween snacks for dessert, after which they can brush (yes, they’re supposed to brush after each meal – we all are; but, if you’ve eaten acidic things, wait 30 minutes so as not to damage teeth).

If brushing isn’t going to happen, rinse with water to wash away residual sugar. Eating an apple will also naturally clean teeth. Cheese is another option. Studies show that the dairy product can raise pH levels in the mouth above those that enable tooth decay. Other compounds in cheese may also keep teeth safe from cavity-causing acid.

Better brushing

Your best defense against the aftermath of Halloween is proper cleaning technique. “If you are going to indulge, make sure you brush and floss,” says Sand. Here’s a refresher.

  • It should take 2 minutes to brush your teeth
  • Place bristles at the gum line, vibrate the bristles back and forth, then roll up or down with the biting direction of the teeth
  • Don't forget molar surfaces
  • Everything you heard recently about not having to floss? Forget about it. “Flossing is still very important,” says Sand. “Nice try.” 

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