We all know the basics of what we should do to safeguard oral health and preserve those pearly whites: Brush teeth twice daily, floss daily to get rid of food particles stuck in between teeth, and visit the dentist every six months for an oral prophylaxis or cleaning and to check for signs of decay.

Limiting sugar intake is also a good idea, as bacteria loves to feed on the sweet stuff, producing the sticky film called plaque that may eventually lead to tooth decay, also known as dental caries or cavities.

But few people know the possible benefits of including xylitol in one’s oral care routine. Read on to find out more about xylitol and if this natural dental care product is something you should be using.

What Is Xylitol?

Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar found in trees, fruits, and vegetables. The white, crystalline powder looks and tastes like sugar, but it has significantly fewer calories (about 40 percent less).

While it contains no vitamins and minerals, it does have other advantages over regular sugar: It contains no fructose and has a very low glycemic index (7 versus regular sugar’s 60 to 70) so consuming it doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar and it does not contribute to tooth decay the way regular sugar does.

How Does Xylitol Work?

“Xylitol has become quite popular because unlike sugar that encourages bacteria to thrive and wreak havoc in the mouth, when the same bacteria takes up xylitol, it has no use for it,” explains Crickette Inserto, DMD at You and Your Teeth Dental Clinic. “Xylitol blocks sugar metabolism and without nourishment it begins to starve, thus promoting a plaque-free oral environment.”

The California Dental Association further explains the mechanism by which xylitol works: “Xylitol inhibits the growth of the bacteria that cause cavities. It does this because these bacteria (Streptococcus mutans) cannot utilize xylitol to grow.

Over time with xylitol use, the quality of bacteria in the mouth changes and fewer and fewer decay-causing bacteria survive on tooth surfaces. Less plaque forms and the level of acids attacking the tooth surface is lowered.”

Dr. Inserto adds that xylitol also increases saliva production, reduces saliva activity, and improves calcium absorption.

Getting Your Xylitol Fix: How Xylitol Works for Oral Health and Dental Hygiene

Xylitol comes in many forms such as syrup, an added ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash, and sweet treats like chewing gum, candy, lozenges, and even gummy bears that make it more appealing to children.

Adults can introduce 6 to 10 grams of xylitol into your oral care routine per day, but The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry has specific recommendations for children who are at high risk for developing dental caries.

Make sure that you check the labels (note that xylitol should be the only sugar in the list of ingredients) and that the dentist prescribes age-appropriate products. Three to eight grams twice a day should suffice. Take care not to give chewing gum, mints, or hard candy to children younger than four as these present a risk of choking.

The AAP cites a study that showed xylitol syrup reduced childhood caries in children 15 to 25 months old by 50 to 70 percent, while another study showed that 10-year-old children who consumed a total of 5 grams of xylitol per day in gum or lozenge form experienced a 35 to 60 percent reduction in tooth decay. The effectiveness of other modalities, such as gummy bear snacks, is yet to be reviewed.

If you decide to include xylitol in your kids’ oral care routine, consult with your dentist and make sure to go back at least once every six months to monitor the development of dental caries and to reassess the treatment needed.

More research needs to be done to come up with conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of xylitol as a plaque-fighting natural dental care product that reduces acid in saliva, but adding it to your oral care routine can’t hurt.

Fluoride and xylitol can provide the one-two punch to help you keep tooth decay at bay, especially if you’re at high risk for developing dental caries. As a study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry puts it, “While these issues of xylitol still need to be expanded, the benefits it offers are literally worth salivating over.”