Preventive Care

Behind the Science: How Fluoride Varnish Reduces Sensitivity

By Dalia Lai, RDH, BS on February, 24 2021
Dalia Lai, RDH, BS

Based out of Sacramento, Calif., author Dalia Lai, RDH, BS is a fan of double-duty products such as fluoride varnish. She is also the founder of Fresh Takes, A Continuing Education Co. Learn more online at or on Instagram at @freshtakesed.

When you hear the words “fluoride varnish,” what type of patient comes to your mind?

Perhaps you immediately think of the little kid with a sweet tooth that puts him at a high caries risk1. Or maybe you recall your elderly patient with xerostomia in desperate need of a little extra protection from decay2.

When it comes to the use of fluoride varnish, the condition of caries tends to hog the limelight.

While it certainly provides that slow release boost of fluoride to nip caries in the bud, science has shown that fluoride varnish can indeed be recommended beyond the typical high caries risk patient.

In fact, nearly 1 in 4 adults3 could benefit from regular professional application of fluoride varnish. While an individual may not have a coinciding high caries risk, they do have another commonly debilitating condition: dentin hypersensitivity.

What is dentin hypersensitivity?
Dentin hypersensitivity occurs when the dentin tubule structure that leads to the pulp of the tooth is exposed to stimuli such as cold air, cold water, touch and osmotic changes (i.e. strong sweet or sour tastes).

When such common stimuli prevent a patient from eating, drinking and speaking, it’s time to intervene.

Certain modifiable factors can be addressed to prevent further exposure of dentin tubules. Such factors include reducing dietary acids, switching to low abrasive at-home toothpastes and investing in a night guard.

However, clinical studies have shown that quarterly applications of fluoride varnish in adults with dentin hypersensitivity can curb daily dentin hypersensitivity symptoms4,5.

How does fluoride varnish help?
By providing a long lasting mechanical barrier to stimuli, fluoride varnish can prevent fluid movement in exposed dentin tubules, thereby preventing that chronic sharp pain that patients who suffer from dentin hypersensitivity know all too well.

So how do we discuss the benefits of fluoride varnish to a patient with dentin hypersensitivity?

Analogies are often beneficial to help illustrate for a patient the mode of action of fluoride varnish on their dentin hypersensitivity. When crafting an analogy, bear in mind your audience, for example: the avid wine drinker with dentin hypersensitivity would appreciate the description of fluoride varnish as being the cork in the wine bottle.

Or, the handyman with an hourly need for black coffee would appreciate the analogy of wood varnish to protect a project from rain, scuffs and bumps.

No matter what analogy you use, understanding the science behind fluoride varnish and the variety of benefits it can have for high caries risk patients and sufferers of dentin hypersensitivity, will keep you at the top of your game.


References :
1. Doppalapudi, N, Kumar Burugapalli R. Effect of Fluoride Varnish in Caries Reduction among Children and Adolescents: A Review. Dental Research and Oral Health. 2020;03(04). doi:10.26502/droh.0032

2. Aging and Dental Health. Aging and dental health (Geriatrics). Accessed February 16, 2021.

3. Splieth CH, Tachou A. Epidemiology of dentin hypersensitivity. Clinical oral investigations.,teeth%20show%20very%20similar%20rates. Published March 2013. Accessed February 16, 2021.

4. Petersson LG. The role of fluoride in the preventive management of dentin hypersensitivity and root caries. Clinical oral investigations. Published March 2013. Accessed February 16, 2021.

5. Nardi GM, Sabatini S, Lauritano D, Silvestre F, Petruzzi M. Effectiveness of two different desensitizing varnishes in reducing tooth sensitivity: a randomized double-blind clinical trial. ORAL & implantology. Published November 16, 2016. Accessed February 16, 2021.


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