Dentists say they're a great way to prevent cavities. This is how to know whether they're right for your child's teeth.

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During a recent trip to the dentist, my daughter, Mackenzie, got the good news we hope for at every appointment: no cavities. Being diligent about brushing and flossing has definitely paid off, but now that Mackenzie's six-year molars are in, her dentist recommended another step to keep them cavity-free -- having dental sealants applied. Though I remember getting sealants myself as a child, I didn't know much about them and wanted to brush up on the basics. This is what I've learned.

What They Are

Sealants are a plastic coating that can be applied to teeth to keep out tooth decay. Like their name implies, they form a protective barrier over teeth and seal out plaque and particles of food that can set up shop in a tooth's nooks and crannies ("pits and fissures" in dental speak) and cause cavities. "Think of sealants like Saran Wrap that you'd put over food to protect it before you put it in the fridge," says Lezli Levene Harvell, D.M.D., a board-certified pediatric dentist in Newark, New Jersey. "They are a very effective tool for preventing cavities."

Most children's cavities happen in places that sealants could have protected, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). In fact, sealants have been shown to reduce cavities by 86 percent after one year and 58 percent after four years, says the AAPD. Sealants are most commonly applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth -- a likely place for tooth decay to crop up -- but your child's dentist can recommend them for other teeth that may be particularly vulnerable to cavities. "Most sealants are placed on permanent first molars (also known as six-year molars) shortly after they erupt, typically around age 6," says Edward H. Moody, Jr., D.D.S., vice president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and a board-certified pediatric dentist in Morristown, Tennessee. "But any tooth that has deep pits and fissures can be sealed soon after it erupts so most sealants are placed when children are between 6 and 13." Teeth are most vulnerable to decay when they first come in, says the AAPD, so the sooner a tooth is sealed the better protected it will be.

What to Expect

Having sealants applied is a quick, painless process. After the dentist dries and preps the tooth, she simply paints on the sealant in liquid form and allows it to harden for about a minute. Once the sealants are set, encourage your child to avoid chomping on ice or chewing especially hard or sticky foods that could dislodge the sealant. Sealants are pretty durable, though, and can last for up to ten years. Your child's dentist will inspect them at each checkup and replace them if needed.

The Bottom Line

Even the most dedicated brushers and flossers can't get every bit of plaque or food that burrows into a tooth's depressions. Sealants offer a layer of protection that can save your child from needing expensive and unpleasant fillings. More good news: "They are probably one of the most cost-effective services your child can receive," says Dr. Moody. Not only do sealants cost less than half of the price of a filling, they are often covered by insurance. That's all the more reason to take advantage of an easy way to keep your child's smile cavity-free.

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