One topical fluoride (toothpastes, or mouthrinses, or gels, or varnishes) versus another for preventing dental caries in children and adolescents

Topical fluorides such as mouthrinses and gels do not appear to be more effective at reducing tooth decay in children and adolescents than fluoride toothpaste.
Tooth decay (dental caries) is painful, expensive to treat and can seriously damage teeth. Fluoride is a mineral that prevents tooth decay. Fluoride is added to the water supply in many areas. It can also be applied in the form of toothpastes, mouthrinses, gels or varnishes. The review of trials found that fluoride toothpastes, mouthrinses and gels reduce tooth decay in children and adolescents to a similar extent. However, toothpastes are more likely to be regularly used. There is no strong evidence that varnishes are more effective than other types of topical fluoride.

Authors' conclusions: 

Fluoride toothpastes in comparison to mouthrinses or gels appear to have a similar degree of effectiveness for the prevention of dental caries in children. There is no clear suggestion that fluoride varnish is more effective than mouthrinses and the evidence for the comparative effectiveness of fluoride varnishes and gels, and mouthrinses and gels is inconclusive. No conclusions about adverse effects could be reached, because no data were reported on in the trials. Acceptance is likely to be greater for fluoride toothpaste.

Read the full abstract...

Topical fluorides in the form of toothpaste, mouthrinse, varnish and gel are effective caries preventive measures. However, there is uncertainty about the relative value of these interventions.


To compare the effectiveness of one form of topical fluoride intervention with another when used for the prevention of dental caries in children.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Oral Health Group's Trials Register (May 2000), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2000, Issue 2), MEDLINE (1966 to January 2000), plus several other databases. We handsearched journals, reference lists of articles and contacted selected authors and manufacturers.

Selection criteria: 

Randomized or quasi-randomized controlled trials with blind outcome assessment, comparing fluoride varnish, gel, mouthrinse, or toothpaste with each other in children up to 16 years during at least 1 year. The main outcome was caries increment measured by the change in decayed, missing and filled tooth surfaces (D(M)FS).

Data collection and analysis: 

Inclusion decisions, quality assessment and data extraction were duplicated in a random sample of one third of studies, and consensus achieved by discussion or a third party. Authors were contacted for missing data. The primary measure of effect was the prevented fraction (PF) that is the difference in mean caries increments between the 'experimental' and 'control' groups expressed as a percentage of the mean increment in the control group. Random-effects meta-analyses were performed where data could be pooled.

Main results: 

There were 17 studies included, and 15 contributed data for the meta-analyses. Fluoride toothpaste was not significantly different from mouthrinse (pooled DMFS PF 0%; 95% CI, -18% to 19%; P = 0.94), or gel (pooled DMFS PF 0%; 95% CI, -21% to 21%; P = 1), or both gel and mouthrinse (pooled DMFS PF 1%; 95% CI, -13% to 14%; P = 0.94); heterogeneity was substantial. Results from the single trial comparing toothpaste with varnish (in deciduous teeth) were inconclusive (dfs PF 5%; CI not obtainable). The pooled results from the comparisons of fluoride varnish with mouthrinse was a non-significant difference favouring varnish (DMFS PF 10%; 95% CI, -12% to 32%; P = 0.40), but this result was not robust to sensitivity analysis performed, and heterogeneity was considerable. Results from the single trial comparing varnish with gel (14%, 95% CI, -12% to 40%; P = 0.30) and the single trial comparing gel with mouthrinse (-14% DMFS PF; 95% CI, -40% to 12%; P = 0.30) were inconclusive (favoured varnish and mouthrinse respectively).