What’s a busy soul on the go to do? You need to stay hydrated when moving about, but you don’t want to fill up on the empty calories of soda, ingest the chemical soup that is diet soda, or slug down a bunch of sugary fruit juices. Plus, you know all those drinks can be hard on your tooth enamel, and you’re working hard to build and maintain your cavity-free lifestyle. You reach for a bottle of water. After all, water is always a safe option and pH neutral so it won’t mess up your CAMBRA cavity prevention routine, right? Depending on which bottle of water you grab, there may be an unpleasant surprise waiting for you in that plastic bottle.
The pH Factor
pH is a scale that measures relative acidity or basic (alkaline) levels of any water based solution. It spans from 0-14. The lower the number, the more acidic it is; the higher the number, the more alkaline (basic) a fluid is. 7 is neutral, and plain water generally has a pH of or right around 7.
A healthy mouth is heavily dependent on having a healthy pH level. After eating or drinking, the mouth becomes more acidic. This is dangerous, primarily, for a pair of reasons. Acidic conditions favor the development of unhealthy, cavity-causing bacteria, particularly S. mutans. The bacteria will actually make acid itself when it takes in sugars from your food choices, keeping your mouth acidic and ready to grow cavities. The second danger of acidic conditions in the mouth is that tooth enamel is make up of minerals, and acid is not good to tooth enamel. Acid dissolves the minerals out of the enamel surface, leaving weak vulnerable spots where the bacteria, now happily reproducing in the acidic environment, can cause a cavity. Although the exact pH levels that start to damage enamel vary based on a number of factors, acid levels around 5.5 are known to be dangerous for enamel health.
But water, as we just discussed is neutral, right? It won’t interfere with keeping a healthy, high-pH oral environment?
That is most often true for tap water from a municipal source. Public drinking water delivered to your house is regulated by the EPA, which recommends that water pH test between the levels of 6.5 and 8.5. Lower or higher pH can be too caustic and damage plumbing (On a side note, pH level is a recommendation, not a regulation, so you may need to check your local water quality report to verify your home water pH level. You will definitely need to check your water’s pH level if you have well water in your home.)
But, what about that bottle of commercially processed water you grabbed from the store? It could be neutral. Or, it could be acidic. In fact, it could be acidic enough to be in the known danger zone. Some popular brands have pH levels that have been lab tested as low as 5.16, 5.63, and 5.72. The bottled water market is full of soda manufacturers who also bottle water. Their techniques for keeping their products shelf stable across their product line involves using acidic pH to avoid bacterial contamination. Your efforts to sip something pH neutral to preserve your tooth enamel could be derailed without you ever knowing how it happened.
So What’s the Thirsty Person on the Go to Do?
In addition to being better for the environment, a simple, refillable water bottle that you filled with plain, neutral pH water is better for your teeth. If you find yourself out and about without your water bottle, you can choose water that has tested to have naturally high pH, paying attention to the benefits of naturally high pH spring waters versus water that has been made high pH by the addition of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). When in doubt, pH correcting mouth spray used after eating can provide peace of mind and elevated oral pH. A little attention to what you’re drinking can save you and your dental team from puzzling over a pH mystery.