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Plain tap water is actually healthier for you than botled water.

It’s always a good idea to reach for a glass of water instead of a soft drink. Sodas are tasty, but they’re loaded with sugar and unhealthy calories. And the acid in sodas can also erode tooth enamel, leading to an increased risk of cavities. Water treated at municipal water plants has one other important advantage over your favorite soft drink: It contains the cavity-fighting compound known as fluoride. But if you live in a rural area or don’t drink your city tap water, you may be missing out on the benefits fluoridated water offers.

Understanding the benefits of fluoride

Unless you’re still traumatized by your childhood dentist visits, you may remember receiving fluoride treatments as a kid. Fluoride is often given to children at their regular dental cleanings to help strengthen their teeth and prevent tooth decay, and it’s added to water supplies in the United States.

Even if you somehow missed out on your fair share of fluoride as a kid, the good news is that you can make up for it now that you’re all grown up. A recent study showed that people who had access to fluoridated water only as adults still showed less signs of tooth decay than their peers who had no access to fluoridated water.

Getting enough fluoride

The U.S. government has been adding fluoride to community drinking water since 1945, but there are still plenty of people who don’t have access to fluoridated water – about 25 percent of the total population. And some people may be making a choice that reduces the amount of fluoride in their diet, by drinking only bottled water.

Some bottled water may contain fluoride, but manufacturers aren’t required to add it to water. So while bottled water may taste better, it’s not necessarily a healthier choice than the water that comes from your tap.

Keeping the good, removing the bad

How do you get the best drinking water? Often, the answer to that depends on where you live. Sometimes, municipal tap water can contain pollutants or have an odd taste, which is why some people turn to bottled water in the first place. And water that comes from private wells can be packed with minerals – including iron, which turns water a rusty orange. The Environmental Protection Agency does not oversee private wells, so it’s important for well-owners to have a professional assessment of water quality to determine if their well water is safe to drink.

Water softeners can remove the abrasive elements that make city water and well water less than palatable, without removing fluoride. While fluoride may naturally occur in well water, it’s often not in high enough concentrations to have a positive impact on oral health, so well-owners should be vigilant for signs of tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends fluoride levels be between 0.6 and 2.0 milligrams per liter; anything lower won’t deter cavities and levels higher than 2.0 mg/L can cause dental fluorosis in children.

There are many additional steps involved in protecting your smile – including scheduling regular dental checkups, brushing and flossing every day and eating healthy foods that are rich in calcium. Think of fluoridated water as one of the most basic cavity-fighting weapons, and reach for it the next time you’re thirsty, instead of a sugary soda.