Air Abrasion

Over the years, you’ve probably come to associate some aspects with visits to the dentist. We’re all well acquainted with the distinct smell permeating our senses as we enter the exam area, a mixture of acrylic, antiseptic, mint and clove oil with just a slight undertone of hot metal. The dentist’s chair has its unique feel, comprised of the padding as well as the angle at which it places you during procedures.

Catching a faint whiff of any of those scents floating by on a spring breeze or over-adjusting the seat in the car can have the power to take us back to our childhood dental visits if only for a split second. Even inadvertently biting down on the prong of a fork is sometimes enough to send us mentally reeling back to the dentist’s office for a moment. One particular component, though, leaves a more profound and lasting impression on dental patients than any of the rest.

The Drill

For many, the infamous dental drill is, by far, the most dreaded aspect of the world of dentistry, worse even than the physical pressure of having a tooth pulled or the burning discomfort lingering after surgical extraction. Whether a low- or high-speed version, that high-pitched squeal is a sound to which nothing can truly compare. Then, of course, there’s the force exerted when the bits make contact with your teeth and the accompanying brain-rattling vibration. The strange sensation of materials showering your tongue only adds to the feeling of it all. That would be a combination of powdered tooth and water jetting from the drill to reduce friction, hence the hot metal odor.

This drill is an immeasurably valuable tool where dental procedures are concerned. In one form or another, this type of technology has been in use for more than 8,000 years. It’s necessary, and it’s completely safe; still, it’s none too pleasant.


Dental drills come with an array of bits made of carbide and tungsten. Each has its own function from penetrating a tooth’s unyielding enamel to effectively smoothing out the rough edges of a newly-positioned inlay. The drill is used for eliminating decay before placing a fillingcrowninlay, or onlay; removing old or damaged fillings; prepping the surface of teeth for restoration, repairs, or veneers; and many other purposes. Unfortunately, its speed, power, and resonance can strike terror or, at least, a mild sense of foreboding in the hearts of dental patients the world over.

We Have an Alternative!

Air abrasion is a new technology. It’s not yet in widespread use, and we’re proud to offer our patients this stand-in for the standard option. This tool resembles a Waterpik more so than the drill you’ve come to know but not love, yet its purpose is much the same. Using a highly focused jet of air filled with beautiful aluminum or silica particles or baking soda, depending on the procedure, air abrasion essentially powers away unwanted elements. It works a bit like a tiny sandblaster and can be used for:

  • Removing decayed portions of teeth
  • Eliminating stains on tooth surfaces
  • Preparing teeth for sealants, bonding, and other restorative or cosmetic procedures

Just like its more emotionally abrasive counterpart, air abrasion is safe for children and adults alike. The technique often allows us to leave more of the tooth intact than drilling when removing a cavity. Though this process may be a bit more lengthy than using the drill itself, it reduces the amount of damage potentially done to otherwise healthy tooth material. At the same time, you’ll notice none of the noise, pressure, or vibration associated with the traditional strategy.

What Happens During the Procedure?

Before beginning the air abrasion process, we’ll need to either place a rubber sheet around the teeth we won’t be working on or coat your teeth and gums with a rubber resin to protect them from particles emitted by the abrasion tool. From there, we’ll abrade away the decay, old restorative materials, discoloration, or other issues using those tiny particles. Throughout the procedure, any particles from your teeth, as well as the tool, will be suctioned away just as they would when drilling.

Sounds Great! What Else do I Need to Know?

We have a bit of a good news/bad news scenario here. Although air abrasion is safe, practical, versatile, and much more pleasant than the alternative, it’s not right for all situations. If you have a cavity deep in your tooth or the enamel hasn’t yet been affected by decay, we’ll still need to use the drill. However, we may be able to incorporate air abrasion into parts of the procedure. Should you need an old amalgam filling removed, the drill will need to come into play for this as well.

Air abrasion hasn’t completely phased out the dental drill at this point, but, someday, it might. This technique can be used in place of drilling in some cases or in addition to the old ways under certain circumstances. It’s a safe procedure with fewer negative implications, and it’s an ideal option for patients who hold above-average fears of the drill.

To learn more about this alternative or to schedule an appointment, call the Washington Center for Cosmetic & Family Dentistry at 202-363-2500.

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"My favorite dentist. Dr. Brown is hands down my favorite dentist. Highly skilled, fantastic bedside (chair side?) manner and a great team of skilled techs. Dr. Brown thoroughly explains proposed treatment, and keeps you informed the entire way. Her husband, Dr. Polowitz, is also great. Our whole family sees them."

Bill S.

"Dr. Brown and Pollowitz are highly skilled dentists, very talented artists, and have the best bedside or should I say "chair side" manner I have ever experienced. I trust them completely and have been seeing Dr. Brown and Pollowitz for almost 20 years now. When I lived out of town for two years, the dentist I saw there was amazed at the skill and perfection of the veneer and implant Dr Brown did and got the whole staff to come look at my mouth! I had an accident when I was a kid and have had lots of problems with my teeth ever since, and that includes many unpleasant experiences, but their kindness has given me a renewed respect and love for dentistry. It means a lot that Dr Brown will call me and find out if I am OK after a crown or something painful. She knows I am sensitive and takes time to take extra good care. Love them both."

Jenny L.

"As always my experience was top notch for a dental appointment. Dr Pollowitz explained the details of what he was going to do as he worked. It was an appointment to both replace a filling and to take care of the cavity on the outside of that filling. He proceeded slowly and there was never any feel of him rushing to get to the next patient. And Sylvia was very professional as always. Rate this office as a 5 star!"

Joan M.
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