If you’ve started to develop cavities, there are several dental filling materials that dentists can use to restore teeth and prevent further tooth decay. While the treatment of cavities shouldn’t be delayed, understanding what the various dental fillings are made of will help you make an informed choice.
Dental Amalgam Fillings
Dental amalgam fillings have been used by dentists to treat tooth decay for over 100 years. Also known as silver fillings or traditional fillings, amalgam fillings are made from liquid (elemental) mercury and mixtures of powdered silver, tin, copper, and zinc. Some mercury fillings also contain nickel.
The advantages of dental amalgam fillings are that they are less expensive than other types of fillings and generally last for around 10-15 years. The disadvantage is that a small amount of mercury vapor is released when the fillings are placed and—from then on—whenever you chew, drink hot liquids, or grind your teeth.
Concerns About Mercury Toxicity
While most people don’t experience any issues from the small amount of mercury vapor that is inhaled, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises caution for pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under six, people with mercury bioaccumulation, and those with allergies to any of the metals contained in the amalgam.
If you are worried about adverse health effects from an amalgam filling or suspect you may have an amalgam allergy, it may be possible to arrange for a replacement filling made from another material such as porcelain.
Gold fillings are similar to silver fillings except that they don't contain mercury and take two visits to the dental office to place. Gold fillings strengthen the chewing surface and are very durable—lasting for 10-15 years or more. However, they are a significant investment, costing up to 10 times as much as silver fillings, and they don’t blend in with your teeth.
When a gold filling is placed near a silver filling, the metals mixed with saliva can react and cause galvanic shock. Fortunately, galvanic shock is rare and usually temporary. If the pain continues, however, either the silver or gold fillings may need to be replaced.
Glass ionomer fillings are made with tiny glass particles and a small amount of fluoride that is gradually released into the tooth. Glass ionomer fillings are particularly beneficial for cavities at or below the gum line because they can help to prevent tooth decay from reaching the pulp and the need for a root canal procedure.
While glass ionomer has several advantages, this dental filling material is most frequently used in young children because it is not as strong as other filling materials and typically only lasts for five years or less. It also comes with the advantage of being safer than mercury, which carries a higher risk of adverse effects for children under six.
Tooth-colored composite resin is one of the most popular filling materials today because the composite resin is the same color as the tooth. Furthermore, composite resin fillings are versatile and can be used for filling breaks, chips, and cracks and for repairing damage from clenching and grinding.
While fillings made with composite resin material are strong and very affordable, they are not particularly durable—lasting for only five to 10 years. Some older composite fillings also contain BPA (bisphenol A), which is a known endocrine disruptor. To ensure that you receive non-toxic dental fillings, ask your dentist to use a composite resin material that is free from BPA and any other chemicals that could be problematic.
Porcelain fillings or ceramic fillings are fairly new to the scene and are quickly becoming one of the most popular solutions for filling larger-sized cavities—particularly in places like Beverly Hills where cosmetic dentists are world-renowned for providing aesthetically pleasing, forward-thinking techniques.
Porcelain inlays and onlays (also known as partial crowns) are made by taking an impression of the cleaned-out cavities and having custom fillings made up in a dental laboratory. These indirect fillings are then cemented permanently to the tooth.
Benefits of Porcelain Fillings
Compared to the other materials that dental fillings are made of (silver amalgam fillings, gold fillings, glass ionomer fillings, and composite fillings), porcelain fillings have several benefits:
They are made from a tooth-colored material.
They are non-toxic.
They are extremely long-lasting.
They provide a chewing surface that's as strong as a natural tooth.
They are resistant to stains.
Where only a little sound tooth structure remains, porcelain crowns and bridges can be placed instead of inlays or onlays. Should the worst occur and you lose a tooth due to an accident or further tooth decay, a dental implant with a porcelain crown can be used to replace the missing tooth.
Can You Have Amalgam Fillings Replaced?
More and more people with amalgam fillings are choosing to have their amalgam fillings removed and replaced with other restorative filling materials. Aside from concerns about mercury exposure, having tooth-colored fillings offers aesthetic benefits—especially when the fillings affect the visible front teeth.
If you opt to replace silver amalgam fillings with long-lasting, non-toxic ceramic fillings, your existing fillings will be removed and the dentist will take impressions of your teeth. The cavities will be filled with a temporary filling material while you wait for your custom porcelain fillings to be made up in the dental laboratory. Then, once they are ready, the porcelain fillings will be permanently cemented to your teeth.
Taking Care of Fillings
Porcelain fillings and composite fillings aren't susceptible to decay. However, it's important to take good care of your teeth to prevent further tooth decay around your fillings and also to protect you from gum disease.
In addition to brushing, flossing, and using mouthwash (commercial or homemade) daily, it's important to visit your dentist regularly for a professional cleaning and to catch any problems as soon as they arise. Should there be signs of decay in the surrounding tooth structure or your dentist finds a "leak" in the filling, they will be able to replace the filling before the decay advances any further.
The Best Fillings for Your Teeth
Knowing what the various dental fillings are made of, you can confidently choose a filling material that suits your budget, lifestyle, and health concerns. The best filling will be one that is:
Tooth-colored (in most cases)
Not prone to cracking
Not prone to stains
While some kinds of fillings are a larger investment up-front, you may be able to pay for the procedure with a payment plan, short-term loan, or with help from your dental insurance provider. The right filling now, placed by an experienced dentist, will help to protect your teeth and allow you to enjoy a beautiful smile long into the future.