It’s About Time: A Drill-Free Fix For Cavities

This applicator slides between teeth to strip enamel, followed by an applicator loaded with resin to strengthen the tooth. Courtesy Jim Lennon/DMG America

Bacteria love hanging out between your teeth—food gets caught there, and brushing can’t reach all the germs. If the bugs settle in and form a cavity, your dentist must drill through your tooth just to get at it. But now dentists can trade their drills for a simple treatment that stops early-stage cavities.

The Icon system lets dentists halt decay between teeth. Usually when a dentist spots an early cavity—when bacteria have eaten away enough tooth such that it’s a weak lattice but hasn’t yet degraded into a true cavity’s sinkhole—he prescribes an enamel-strengthening fluoride rinse and hopes the tooth heals itself. If that doesn’t work, the only option is drilling through healthy tooth to get to the problem spot.

Icon, developed by dental-materials manufacturer DMG, does away with both the drill and the waiting time. A dentist simply slides a thin plastic applicator between the patient’s teeth and squirts the cavity with hydrochloric acid, which etches away the enamel to access the tooth’s deeper layers. Using a fresh applicator, he then injects a low-viscosity resin into the gaps in the tooth’s lattice and hardens the resin with a quick flash of high-energy blue light to fortify the tooth.

DMG is working on a version that could hold up to the wear and tear of a tooth’s chewing surfaces, which company president George Wolfe hopes to have ready in a year. The sooner the better, he says: “One of my greatest fears is having to hold down my scared kid for a filling. Hopefully, I’ll never have to.”