Many people can’t think of the dentist without imagining the sound of the dental drill. That’s because whether preparing a tooth for a dental crown, removing cavities or performing root canal therapy, dentists have relied on this time-tested technology for years. However, modern dentists also have a newer option for removing portions of the tooth structure without that familiar noise of a drill: air abrasion. Patients who feel some level of dental anxiety at the thought of a traditional drill may be pleasantly surprised to discover that air abrasion, an alternative to drills, is available for many procedures.

What is air abrasion?

Air abrasion, also called microabrasion, is a method for removing tooth decay with tiny particles of aluminum oxide or silica. Imagine a miniature sandblaster gently wearing away the decayed material without the friction of a drill. Your dentist uses compressed air to spray a stream of the sand-like particles at the affected tooth while an assistant generally suctions away the excess. Because air abrasion is most commonly used to prepare a tooth for a tooth filling, it is also often referred to as kinetic cavity preparation. In addition to removing tooth decay, dentists often use air abrasion to prepare a tooth for dental sealants or dental bonding. Old composite resin fillings can often be removed with the technique as well. In some cases, air abrasion can even be used to gently remove stains on the tooth surface.

Is air abrasion safe?

Yes, air abrasion is safe. The only precautions needed before air abrasion are protective eye wear (to prevent eye irritation from the spray) and the use of a rubber dam (a rubber sheet that fits around teeth to avoid unintentional wear of healthy tooth surface) or protective resin applied to nearby teeth and gums to protect areas of the mouth that aren’t being treated. The suctioning of particles also prevents them from being breathed into the lungs.

What are the advantages of air abrasion?

Compared with the traditional drilling method, the advantages of air abrasion are many and include the following:

  • Air abrasion generates no heat, pressure, or vibration.
  • It sometimes reduces the need for anesthesia, particularly if the cavity is shallow.
  • It leaves more of the healthy tooth tissue behind.
  • It can reduce the risk of fracturing and chipping of the tooth, which some dentists believe can affect the life span of the filling.
  • The procedure is relatively simple, although it may take longer than traditional drilling.

What are the disadvantages?

  • Air abrasion is not necessarily free of pain. The air and abrasive particles can cause sensitivity.
  • Air abrasion is not recommended for deep cavities (those close to the tooth’s pulp) or for cavities in between teeth. It is best suited for removing small cavities that form early on the outer or chewing surface of teeth.
  • If hard enamel needs to be removed to access the decay, this cannot be done with air abrasion and a traditional drill must be used. Once access to the decay has been achieved, air abrasion can then be used.
  • Crowns, onlays, and inlays cannot be prepared using air abrasion.

Is air abrasion suitable for everyone?
Yes. It is an especially good option for children who may be afraid of the needle, and the noise, and vibration of a regular dental drill. However, there are some treatments, like crown and bridge preparation, that still require the use of a dental drill. Air abrasion can’t be used as an alternative in every procedure.

What other types of procedures are performed with air abrasion?

Air abrasion can also be used to:

  • Remove some old composite restorations, but not metallic restorations such as silver amalgam fillings
  • Prepare a tooth surface for bonding or sealants
  • Remove superficial stains and tooth discolorations


If you have any questions about air abrasion, call Winning Smiles to schedule an appointment with your dentist – 716-332-2444.