Do you have questions about dental sealants? The term may be unfamiliar but the good news is it's a simple preventative procedure that's performed to help protect teeth from decay. Best of all, it's completely pain-free and what's more, dental sealants for kids are free on Medicaid or CHIP.
Tooth sealant is most often applied to children and teens when their adult teeth first erupt, but it's not only children's oral health that may benefit. In many cases, adults can have their teeth sealed too.
Here we'll explain exactly what the pits and fissure sealant procedure involves, what it costs (both with insurance and privately), and what you should consider before going ahead.
If you want to know more about children's oral health, we have an entire collection of articles dedicated to dental care for babies and children.
When new molars appear in a child’s mouth, they are highly susceptible to cavities. Based on the typical diet of a child and newly formed brushing habits, or lack thereof, cavities can be easy to come by in children between the age of 5-14. One of the best ways to help young molars prevent cavities is with dental sealants.
This is a harmless filler that coats the teeth and prevents bacteria from causing decay. It will wear down and the effectiveness will decrease over time, so it is recommended that patients reapply every 2-4 years.
The cost of dental sealants is about a third of the price on average of filling a cavity. Cavities can also lead to other problems such as loss of teeth, gum disease, and nerve damage, which can add to your dental costs over time. Dental sealants can be up to 80% more effective at cavity prevention for the first 2 years.
Therefore, reapplying every couple of years can be a big saving for the parents and save a lot pain and issues for the children in the long run. It depends on the carrier, but insurance will often help offset the cost of sealants until the child is 18.
Dr. William G. Rice, DDS, William Rice Dental
Table of contents
What are dental sealants?
Our back teeth (molars and premolars) have an irregular surface which helps us chew food. However, the fissures (grooves) and pits (small hollows) in the teeth are sometimes so deep that they trap food and plaque and are difficult to clean. Over time, this can lead to painful dental cavities. This problem is quite common. In fact, the majority of tooth decay in children and young adults occurs on the biting surfaces of the back teeth.
So what is a dental sealant?
Dental sealant is also known as fissure sealant and is a procedure meant to partially fill any deep pits and fissures to make teeth easier to clean, thereby protecting against decay and reducing the likelihood of needing fillings later in life. Sealing teeth doesn't make the biting surface completely smooth, but reduces the depth of natural grooves and holes. The video below gives a brief explanation of the dental sealant procedure:
But how well do dental sealants work? This report from the American Dental Association states that pit and fissure sealants can reduce the occurrence of dental caries by 75% over 2-3 years, while this Cochrane report gives a more conservative range of 11-51% over 2 years. In any case, tooth sealant is widely regarded as an effective preventative dental treatment among dental professionals.
Dental sealant material
The material used for tooth sealants is usually a tooth-colored plastic resin material. It may not exactly match the natural tooth color, but as it's only applied to the teeth at the back of the mouth, it shouldn't be very noticeable.
A glass ionomer compound can also be used, but has been found to be less durable than resin in some studies.
Who needs to have sealants on their teeth?
Although all molars and premolars naturally have some pits and grooves, they aren't always deep enough to need fissure sealant. Your dentist or hygienist will examine your teeth (or your child's) and advise if any treatment is required.
Children are more likely to need fissure sealing from a pediatric dentist if:
- Their baby teeth had decay
- They are deemed to be at a higher risk of decay now
Often, sealants are applied as soon as the adult back teeth appear. This is around age 6-7 for premolars and then up to age 14 for the remaining molars. However, they can be treated later on as long as the teeth are still healthy.
If a tooth already has a small amount of early decay, it may still be possible to remove the decay, apply a small, tooth-colored filling, and then seal any other vulnerable areas of the tooth.
Dental sealants for adults
If you missed out on dental sealants at the dentist when you were younger, you might be wondering if you can get tooth sealant for adults – especially if you are conscious of your back teeth having deep fissures or pits where food often gets stuck.
Well, provided the biting surface is in sound condition, it should be quite straightforward to apply a dental fissure sealant. If there is already some decay in the fissure then you will need to have a filling, but your dentist may still be able to apply a sealant to other parts of the tooth which would benefit.
As with any other dental treatment, speak to your dentist about the different options that would be suitable for you.
The dental sealants procedure
This preventative procedure is non-invasive and should take just a few minutes per tooth. A dentist or a dental hygienist may apply sealant. They may also recommend applying fluoride varnish at the same time, to strengthen and protect the teeth.
Here is the fissure sealant procedure step-by-step:
- The tooth is thoroughly cleaned to remove any food particles and bacteria, then dried.
- A special solution prepares the surface of the tooth, making it easier for the solution to bond.
- The sealant is applied.
- A blue light is shone on the sealant to harden it.
As you can see, it's a very straightforward process with no drilling involved (except in cases where the tooth is already decayed). Younger patients might feel a little nervous if it's the first time they've had anything more than a dental checkup, but you can reassure them that it won't hurt at all and it will help keep their new teeth healthy.
The teeth might feel a bit different afterward if the dental sealant has altered the bite, but it shouldn't take long to get used to this.
When you have a tooth that begins to show early signs of having a cavity develop, a dental sealant may be recommended to prevent it from fully developing. Sealant application is an easy, simple procedure, with no pain or numbing medication involved. In just a few minutes, a tooth can be sealed, which means that the procedure is done in just one office visit. A sealant is a thin piece of plastic that is typically clear or white in color, that is applied to the surface of the tooth. This shields the enamel from further decay by “sealing out” food, plaque, and cavity-causing bacteria. Sealants are meant to prevent the need for dental fillings, and require no drilling to be applied.
Dr. Brandon Murri, Family & Cosmetic Dentistry of the Rockies
How long do dental sealants last?
Just like a filling, tooth sealant should last for many years. However, it's important to have regular dental checkups so your dentist can check that the seal is still properly in place. If it chips or cracks, bacteria can reach the enamel below and cause decay.
Sealant will wear out over time but it can be repaired or replaced if needed.
It's still vital to take good care of the teeth that have been treated with tooth sealant; it's definitely not a substitute for proper brushing and oral hygiene.
Are dental sealants safe?
Since this is a non-invasive procedure, the tooth structure remains intact and the sealant can be removed at any time.
There is a risk that if the tooth sealants material cracks or chips and isn't repaired by a dentist, a cavity could form underneath it and go unnoticed for quite some time. This is why it's important to attend regular dental checkups throughout childhood and adulthood (at least once a year).
A dental sealants controversy has also created some concerns about this procedure. The concern is about bisphenol A (BPA) which is present in plastic sealants. However, the ADA has studied the risk and concluded that: “Although dental materials used to treat and prevent caries, including dental sealants, can contribute to very low-level bisphenol A (BPA) exposure for a few hours after placement, based on current evidence, there is no health concern relative to BPA exposure from any dental material.”
Tooth sealant cost
So, what do dental sealants cost? The average tooth sealant cost is between $30 and $40 per tooth, and what's more, some of the dental sealant cost may be covered by your insurance plan. Whatever the price, it's certainly cheaper than having to get fillings, root canals and crowns later in life, the latter of which can cost anywhere between $500 and $2,000.
Dental sealants cost on Medicaid for children and adults
If your child has Medicaid or CHIP, any dental care they need will be provided free of charge. So, tooth sealant on state-run health insurance is free for children. Tooth sealant for adults is only covered by Medicaid in 28 states, so check to see if your state qualifies, and if not, make sure to talk to your dentist about alternative ways to finance your sealants. You can also read more about dental Medicaid coverage.
Cost of sealants without insurance
As mentioned above, dental sealants cost per tooth is between $30 and $40 if you don't have insurance. Each dentist is free to set their own rates, and a lot is dependent on their location and business overheads. You could enquire at a few clinics in your area to see if there is much difference in dental sealants costs. They may offer a discount to treat multiple teeth.
The following table summarizes the dental sealants pros and cons discussed in this article:
Reduces the risk of decay
Requires regular checkups
Makes teeth easier to clean
Decay may develop underneath if not checked
Extremely low levels of BPA
If your dentist advises you or your child to have tooth sealants, it's because there is a high risk of cavities developing in the pits and fissures in your back teeth. Provided you continue regular dental checkups, the risks of this procedure are negligible. Plus, it should reduce the chances of you needing more invasive – and costly – dental treatment later on.
If you want your child to have tooth sealants, you can read our guide on how to find a dental hygienist near you.
What is the purpose of dental sealants?
The purpose of dental sealants is to fill in deeper fissures you may have on the tops of your back molars. Filling in these cracks makes teeth easier to clean and decreases the chances of tooth decay.
What are dental sealants made of?
Dental sealants are normally made of a tooth-colored plastic resin material. Sometimes they are made of a glass ionomer, but this material isn't known to last as long.
Are dental sealants necessary?
Dental sealants can be a very helpful procedure to help keep teeth cavity-free. And while they are an important part of proper dental care, they aren't a replacement for regular brushing and flossing. Your dentist will be able to tell you if you or your child should get dental sealants.
Are tooth sealants dangerous?
Dental sealants have a small amount of BPA, or bisphenol A. However, the ADA has determined that dental sealants are safe and there is no danger of exposure to BPA.
Can you get BPA-free dental sealants?
You can find claims of BPA-free sealants advertised online, but none are yet approved by the ADA. Approach any BPA-free option with caution, and make sure to consult your dentist beforehand.
JADA: Evidence-based clinical practice guideline for the use of pit-and-fissure sealants. Consulted 3rd December 2019.
Cochrane: Sealants for preventing tooth decay in permanent teeth. Consulted 3rd December 2019.
ADA: Dental sealants. Consulted 3rd December 2019.
MACPAC: Medicaid coverage of dental benefits for adults. Consulted 3rd December 2019.