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Hygiene Message in a Bottle Mailbag: Should you be using fluoride varnish, foam, or gel?

Sept. 11, 2017
Colleen Olson, RDH, BBA, discusses the efficacy of in-office fluoride varnish, compared to fluoride foam and fluoride gel.  

The Hygiene Message in a Bottle Mailbag is a monthly feature of the e-newsletter, Pearls for Your Practice: The Product Navigator. Each month, Colleen Olson, RDH, BBA, the editorial director of the Hygiene Product Navigator, will answer reader-submitted questions to help you navigate your dental hygiene product decisions (and more!). This month, she discusses the efficacy of in-office fluoride varnish, compared to foam and gel.


What should I be using when it comes to in-office fluoride: varnish, foam, gel?


Great question! My go-to in-office fluoride treatment is varnish for many reasons. First, it is quick and easy to apply. Some gels and foams require up to four minutes for proper application, and as hygienists, we know those minutes add up. The materials cost difference between fluoride varnish and gel in trays is negligible, but there is money saved in time. (1) Varnish is easy to apply on anyone, including patients who are in orthodontics and patients with strong gag reflexes. It can also be used on very young patients to help prevent early childhood caries on primary teeth. In addition to being simple for the patient, fluoride varnish leaves the patient with fewer restrictions when leaving your office. Most varnishes are immediately set following application. This means the patient doesn’t have to wait 30 minutes to an hour to eat or drink after leaving your office, the way some gel or foam products require.

In the American Dental Association report “Topical fluoride for caries prevention,” the Council on Scientific Affairs concluded that “some professionally applied and prescription-strength topical fluoride agents are efficacious in preventing and controlling tooth decay." (2) The report identified the following products as being effective: 2.26% fluoride varnishes, 1.23% fluoride gels, prescription-strength, home-use 0.5% fluoride gels or pastes, and prescription-strength, home-use 0.09% fluoride mouthrinses. (2) Fluoride varnish is my go-to because it is safe and effective and appropriate for any patient, and it also has minimal restrictions following application and results in greater patient acceptance than gel or foam trays.


1. Jahn CA. Fluoride varnish: One size fits all. RDH magazine website. Published January 2010. Accessed August 2017.

2. Council on Scientific Affairs; American Dental Association. Topical fluoride for caries prevention: Full report of the updated clinical recommendations and supporting systematic review. American Dental Association website. Published November 2013. Accessed August 2017.

More reading

August 2017 | Remineralizing root surfaces
July 2017 | Updated guidelines on fruit juice for infants, children, adolescents
June 2017 | Recommendations for take-home whitening products and whitening toothpaste

Editor's note: Do you have a question for Colleen? Is there a product you'd like to see her review? Or would you like to submit your own hygiene product article? Send an email to [email protected]. You might just see it in the Hygiene Product Navigator! If you're not a Product Navigator subscriber, click here to sign up.

Colleen Olson, RDH,BBA, is an editorial director for the e-newsletter, Pearls for Your Practice: The Product Navigator. She earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Texas A&M University in 2008 and worked in sales for five years. She graduated from the Blinn College Dental Hygiene program in 2013. She is a full-time mom to Bonnie Grace and is currently a part-time hygienist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband, Zach, and their families.
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