5 tips to scare away cavities

Pediatric dentist Maria Velasco suggests coming up with a plan to allow for moderate but limited candy consumption, then giving away the rest.

large pile of assorted wrapped candy

On Halloween, children come home with candy by the bucket-full. Beyond the inevitable sugar high, what are the true implications of consuming all that junk, particularly for young teeth? Maria Velasco, a pediatric dentist and clinical assistant professor at Penn Dental Medicine, offers five tips for parents concerned with how to protect their kids’ pearly whites from the onslaught of goodies, plus a bonus idea for next Halloween. 

1. Choose wisely. Not all candies are created equal. On the continuum from worst to best, gummies and caramels have the potential to do the most damage because, by their nature, they stick to teeth. “Better treats are typically milk chocolate, pretzels, and perhaps crackers,” Velasco says. “But the best choices are dark chocolate and sugar-free gum—though I’m not sure I’ve met many children who like dark chocolate.” 

2. Pair candy with meals. Bacteria live in the mouth ordinarily. Film from sugars, in particular sucrose and glucose, cling to the teeth and get consumed by those bacteria. This process produces acid, which weakens the protective coating of the tooth, known as enamel. “The more times throughout the day acid is produced, the more likely you are to get cavities,” she explains. “In other words, the more you snack throughout the day, the more likely that bacteria will eat the sugars and drop the pH of your plaque.” To that end, she recommends eating the candy treat toward the end of a meal, rather than separately. 

3. Have a plan. “Some of my patients tell me they get pounds of candy,” Velasco says. “What are they going to do with all of it?” She suggests parents come up with a game plan ahead of time. How much candy will the children be allowed to have and for how many days? Then figure out a good option for the rest, like a buy-back program many dentists offer in which they exchange treats for money and other items, then send the leftover candy to the troops. 

4. Drink water and limit other sugars. For the same reason that Velasco notes it’s a good idea to lump candy with other meals, she also recommends upping water consumption and reducing intake of other sugars, particularly sugary drinks. “Water helps cleanse your teeth, and it’s able to rinse out all the residual debris on your teeth,” she explains. “It’s not going to allow bacteria to get ahold of the sugar and start producing more acid.” 

5. Maintain dental hygiene. “It’s more important than ever to make sure children brush their teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste,” Velasco says, adding that this should happen 20 to 30 minutes following meal time. The fluoride is important because it strengthens the enamel and makes teeth more resistant to bacteria. 

Bonus: Consider giving out non-candy treats. Velasco isn’t talking about raisins or pennies. Rather, she suggests kid-approved treats like bubbles, stickers, temporary tattoos, and sugar-free gum. If candy and Halloween are simply too intertwined to convince your kids otherwise, remember the oft-repeated idea ‘everything in moderation,’ she says. “The frequency with which they eat candy is what’s really going to make it sticky for them—and for their teeth—in the future.”   

Maria Velasco is a clinical assistant professor of pediatric dentistry at the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.