Amalgam vs. Composite Fillings: Breaking Down the Differences

Dental fillings are used to even out the tooth’s surface and improve the jaw’s biting and chewing function. If your dentist identifies that you have a cavity in your tooth, the correct procedure to address the problem will be a filling. If your cavity is left untreated, your tooth’s situation can worsen as the cavity continues to progress. Tooth decay leads to bone loss, which can lead to a tooth extraction.

Thankfully, the procedure to implement a filling is relatively routine. Today’s dentists, including our very own Dr. Lang, use advanced dentistry, making the process as comfortable as possible. To make things better, dental patients aren’t limited to just one type of filling when treating a cavity. Though many choices are available, the two most common options are amalgam and composite fillings. So, what’s the difference between the two?

As we mentioned previously, there are various dental filling materials available today. Dentists can use gold, porcelain, amalgam, or plastic tooth-colored materials. There are also materials available that contain glass ionomers. Even with all of these materials available, the most common dental fillings are amalgam and composite. But before we get into the nitty-gritty about the differences and similarities between amalgam and composite fillings, let’s answer some basic questions.

What do dental fillings do?

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, dental fillings are used when there is a need to even out the tooth’s surface and improve the jaw’s function for biting and chewing. If your dentist identifies that you have a cavity in your tooth, the natural solution is a filling. If you do not receive the proper care and attention to your cavity, your tooth’s situation can worsen as your cavity continues to progress. Untreated cavities can lead to tooth decay, which can lead to bone loss. And bone loss can lead to a tooth extraction.

The first step your dentist will take when assessing your need for a filling is looking at your teeth to determine the best course of action for you. Dental fillings work best for minor fractures and decay. With more severe cases, your dentist might suggest restorative dental treatments, such as a dental crown or implant.

Dr. Lang and his team will look at your teeth with a dental probe to explore challenging areas. When necessary, he may also elect to take an X-ray to ascertain your cavity’s severity and location better.

How does the dental filling procedure work?

Now that you understand what dental fillings are for, the next natural question is what to expect during this dental procedure. Dr. Lang will apply a local anesthetic to the area around your infected tooth so the entire site becomes numb. This process might involve a little pinch as he administers the anesthetic, but once it kicks in, you will be comfortable and won’t feel a thing.

The next step is to prepare the damaged tooth and the surrounding area for the procedure. Dr. Lang will use a laser to remove the damaged part of your tooth then apply an acid-based gel to cleanse away any debris or bacteria that may remain in the area. Once this is done, he can apply the filling material into the cavity.

Since Dr. Lang specializes in composite fillings, this is likely the option he will suggest for you. He will apply various adhesives to prevent moisture from seeping into the bonding process, then he will harden the composite material with a bonding light. The last step is polishing your tooth. And voila, your dental process is complete.

Now that you understand what they are for and how the procedure works, let’s dig into the differences between amalgam and composite fillings.

What is an amalgam filling?

Amalgam fillings are comprised of various metal and liquid elements. In particular, amalgam fillings consist of liquid mercury and a powdered alloy made up of copper, silver, and tin. About half of the overall composition is liquid mercury, as the chemical properties allow it to react and bind with the powdered particles.

Many patients refer to amalgam fillings as silver fillings because they appear silver in appearance. But referring to these fillings as silver alone does not adequately address its other materials.

To apply an amalgam dental filling, dentists will first strive to make patients comfortable by administering an anesthetic as mentioned earlier. Then, the tooth will be drilled to remove the decay and shape the tooth’s cavity for the amalgam filling. Next, the dentist will mix the powdered alloy with liquid mercury to create a putty-like substance. This substance is then placed and molded into the cavity, where it will harden into a solid filling.

Pros and Cons of Amalgam Fillings

As with anything, there can be advantages and disadvantages. Amalgam fillings can be a less costly procedure. On the flip side, however, they will take on a metallic appearance, and you will, quite literally, have metal in your mouth. In rare cases, patients can experience an allergic reaction, which will result in their dentist having to redo the entire process.

What is a composite filling?

Composite fillings are commonly referred to as tooth-colored fillings. They are highly resistant to fracture and provide excellent durability for small to mid-sized fillings. In particular, composite can withstand moderate pressure from the stress of chewing. Composite fillings work well for either front or back teeth and are an excellent solution for dental patients who want their fillings to look more natural than the amalgam alternative.

In some cases, composite fillings are not covered by insurance plans, and thus, the patient will need to explore their options before becoming married to the idea of one type or the other. Further, composite fillings, though highly durable, sometimes do not last quite as long as amalgam fillings.

The procedure to place a composite filling can take a bit longer than an amalgam placement because composite fillings require that the tooth is kept clean and dry throughout the process. However, most patients prefer the flexibility of a tooth-colored filling because of its natural aesthetics and the lower risk it poses for further damage to the tooth or allergic reactions. As a result, composite fillings have become the most popular option used in today’s modern dental practices.

Pros and Cons of Composite Fillings

Many patients like composite fillings for its reliable fit, but there are other advantages too, such as its ability to match the shade of your teeth. Further, your dentist won’t need to remove quite as much of your natural tooth to place this kind of filling.

However, some patients have experienced disadvantages with tooth-colored fillings. In particular, the biggest concern is that not all insurance companies cover composites at this point. Thankfully, we have seen a shift in insurance coverage over the years, and we anticipate the trend to continue. Composite fillings also take a bit longer to fit, though the extra time only amounts to 20 to 30 minutes. Finally, some patients report that composite fillings leave more post-operative sensitivity to hot and cold than amalgam fillings.

The choice is up to you.

As with every dental procedure, choosing between traditional amalgam and more modern composite or tooth-colored fillings is completely your choice.

If you have questions about dental fillings or need help understanding the right option for you, please schedule an appointment with Steven A. Lang, DDS, at Great Miami Dental. Or, if you aren’t quite ready to schedule an appointment, give us a call at (513) 424-5349. We look forward to hearing from you.