Lasers have been used in many facets of dentistry since 1994. From drilling cavities to root planing and more, lasers have made both the dentist’s job easier and patients' procedures shorter and less painful. But now, a new laser procedure under development may be able to help patients prevent one of the most common and painful dental problems plaguing teeth today: cavities.

The laser is currently under development at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) in a team that includes Peter Rechmann, DMD, Ph.D., and John Featherstone, Ph.D., dean of UCSF’s school of dentistry. Featherstone began working with lasers in dentistry in the 1980s, while Rechmann has devoted much of his career to figuring out how to use lasers to prevent cavities. With this new laser, their decades of research won’t just pay off, but may also change the way we do dentistry.

That’s because Rechmann and Featherstone’s team has developed a laser that doesn’t just correct cavities, but also prevents them by changing the chemical composition of the tooth enamel, making it stronger and more cavity resistant. It works by employing a short-pulsed carbon dioxide laser that sends a microsecond pulse at precisely the right wavelength to change the composition of tooth enamel from carbonated hydroxyapatite to hydroxyapatite. Hydroxyapatite is far more durable than carbonated hydroxyapatite and offers better resistance against the cavity-causing acid byproduct that bacteria leave behind.

"If we could make teeth stronger, we could really see a big decline in the rate of cavities," says Dr. Stephen Hill, a dentist in Allen, Texas. "This is exciting news for adult patients, but I think it’s even more promising for children."

That’s because, according to Hill, children miss an average of 2.1 days and teens miss an average of 2.3 days of school per year due to dental problems.

"If we can prevent some of those cavities before they even start, it could do a world of good," Hill says. "Yes, children would miss less school, but they’d also be less afraid of the dentist and maybe even more open to taking care of their teeth."

The laser is now pending FDA approval for use in changing enamel composition and could be available in dental practices soon.