Multiple studies confirm the reduction of pit and fissure carious lesions with the placement of sealants, but sealant placement continues to be underused. Some of the same questions that were brought up when sealants were first introduced continue to be concerns even as scientific evidence supporting the use of sealants continues to grow. It is possible these considerations are responsible for the under-utilization of this proven preventive procedure. The following list includes some common questions that continue to be asked regarding the use of pit and fissure sealants:
Sealing Incipient Lesions – Do the Caries Continue to Progress?
Research findings consistently indicate the caries process is inhibited when sealants are applied to incipient lesions. These findings have been demonstrated radiographically and microscopically. A systematic review by Griffin et al., 200810 examined the effectiveness of sealants in preventing caries progression and found that the median annual percentage of non-cavitated lesions progressing was 2.6% for sealed and 12.6% for unsealed carious teeth. They concluded that sealing non-cavitated caries in permanent teeth is effective in reducing caries progression. The intact sealants provide “100% protection” in preventing caries. The percent of progression of carious lesions increase minimally over time as sealant integrity was compromised. Despite this good evidence, a recent survey on dentists’ perspectives on evidence based recommendations suggested that the U.S. dentists have not adopted evidence-based clinical recommendations regarding the sealing of non-cavitated caries lesions (NCCLs).11 According to practice guidelines published by the American Dental Association in 2018, experts recommend the use of sealants plus 5% sodium fluoride varnish applied every 3-6 months or sealants alone, versus fluoride varnish only.12
Retention Rates - What if the Sealant Falls Out?
Sealant effectiveness is greatly related to sealant retention. While placing sealants, steps need to be taken that enhance sealant retention such as having a very dry field, although newer products may not require this as the products are hydrophilic or while using glass ionomer products. Sealant retention is principally the result of resin tags penetrating the microporosities that occur when enamel is etched properly and the field is dry. In general, properly placed sealants do not fall out. In a systematic review by Griffin et al., 2009, it was found that surface cleaning with toothbrush and assistance during sealant placement may result in higher retention.10 Cochrane Database of Systematic Review3 evaluating caries prevention by sealants concluded, the reduction in caries ranged from up to 51% in 12 months with similar results at 48 months. If the occlusal bulk wears away or is lost, there is clinical evidence the resin tags remain and the surface is protected. The photograph in (Figure 5) shows a sealant with the tooth structure dissolved leaving only the resin tags.
Griffin et al., 2009 in a systematic review reported that teeth with fully or partially lost sealant were not at a higher risk of developing caries than were teeth that had never been sealed.10 Inability to provide a retention-check examination to all children participating in school sealant programs because of loss to follow-up should not disqualify a child from receiving sealants.10 Further, a 2014 study by Fontana et al13 suggested that occlusal surfaces without frank cavitation that are sealed with a clear sealant can be monitored with International Caries Detection and Assessment System (ICDAS), quantitative light-induced fluorescence (QLF), or DIAGNOdent, which may aid in predicting the need for sealant repair.
Etching Removes Enamel – Will the Unsealed Etched Surface be More Susceptible to Caries?
Remineralization begins as soon as saliva coats the surface and forms an organic pellicle over the etched tooth structure; thus, the tooth surface is protected. For reference, the etching process used for sealants removes about 10 microns of enamel and polishing with pumice removes about 4 microns.
Cost Effectiveness – Do You Save Money?
For years, average cost of a one-surface amalgam restoration has remained about double the cost of a sealant. Studies suggest sealants are cost-effective, particularly in children at increased risk for tooth decay.14,15 Having auxiliaries perform this procedure can also reduce the cost. Placing sealants at the time of the recall appointment and using a risk assessment protocol to determine which surfaces to seal are also ways to reduce cost.
Removing Tooth Structure – Is it Necessary?
Using a bur to clean out pits and fissures and the placement of a composite resin restoration is a common procedure instead of placing a sealant. The procedure, preventive resin restoration, is billed as a one surface restoration. Local anesthetic is used in many cases and auxiliaries cannot do the procedure. Air abrasion is sometimes used to clean out pit and fissures prior to placement of sealants. Many states interpret the use of air abrasion as removal of hard tooth structure and, therefore, not all auxiliaries will be allowed to place the sealant materials. Labor is a major cost in the dental office; it is more effective to use qualified auxiliaries.
Payment – Do Insurance Companies Cover this Procedure?
Medicaid coverage in all 50 states covers the placement of pit and fissure sealants. Most Health Maintenance Organization’s dental plans cover sealants as a preventative procedure. Also, many of the fee for service plans cover sealants because they have determined the use of sealants is a cost effective method of preventing higher cost restorative treatment. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) national oral health goal is to increase the rate of sealants in the Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) population.