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What is an Amalgam? A Look at Dental Fillings

Fillings are one of the most common dental procedures. If you’ve ever experienced tooth decay (otherwise known as a “cavity” or “caries”), chances are you’ve had a filling. Dentists use fillings to repair and replace cavities that would otherwise leave the soft inner tooth (known as “dentin”) exposed. Without a dental filling, untreated cavities can result in additional health complications, including decay, abscess, or infection.

From amalgam fillings to composites, here’s a quick look at how dental fillings work:

How Do Fillings Work?

When your dentist determines a filling is needed, he or she will first prepare the site. At the start of the procedure, your dentist will administer an anesthetic via a shot. For your added comfort, a sedative may be administered. After the affected area is numb, the dentist uses special instruments to remove (or “excavate”) the decay.

Once the decay is removed, your dentist will fill the excavated area with a filling, shape the material to match your tooth and harden it in place with a UV curing light. Once the filling is completed, your dentist will check your bite and make any adjustments to ensure a proper fit.

Depending on the size and location, most fillings can be completed in an hour or less.

What Are Dental Fillings Made Of?

There are many different types of dental fillings, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.


Amalgam fillings (often called “silver” fillings) are made of mercury and a mixture of other metals. Compared to other filling materials, amalgam is stronger, easier to work with, and less expensive, though its silver coloring makes it a less aesthetically appealing option. Amalgam is the most common type of dental filling and has been used by dentists for more than 150 years. While the FDA determined in a 2009 review that the mercury levels found in amalgam are not high enough to pose a risk to patients, the issue continues to be controversial in some circles. For this reason as well as cosmetic concerns, some dental practices no longer use amalgam fillings.

> > Concerned about amalgam fillings? Talk with your dentist. Although some dental practices (like MyOrthodontist) no longer use amalgam, many do. If you’re not interested in an amalgam filling, ask your dentist about available alternatives.


Composite fillings are made of tooth-colored composite resin and are a popular choice among dentists and patients alike for their aesthetic appeal and affordability. While a composite filling typically will not last as long as an amalgam, gold, or porcelain filling, the material is still very strong.

Composite fillings are also frequently used for cosmetic reasons, such as to change the size, shape, or color of your tooth. These are known as cosmetic fillings, or, “tooth-colored” fillings.


Glass ionomer fillings are weaker than other filling materials, so they’re primarily used on “non-biting” surfaces of the teeth (such as between the teeth). Ionomer fillings form a chemical bond with the tooth structure, and may also release fluoride, which can help prevent further tooth decay.


Gold fillings (called gold inlays or onlays) are the strongest, longest lasting filling material available, and also the most expensive. Unlike other filling materials, gold fillings are made in a lab and then fixed to the tooth by your dentist. Because other filling materials are more affordable and can be made to match the color of your tooth, gold fillings are no longer very common.


Porcelain inlays are designed in a lab using digital technology and specially prepared to match the color of your tooth. Because porcelain inlays are bonded directly to the surface of the tooth, they are typically used for larger cavities in areas where there is less tooth structure. Like gold, porcelain inlays can be very expensive.

Let Your Dentist Help Today

There are many choices when it comes to dental fillings, but only your dentist can tell you which treatment(s) may or may not be appropriate in your particular case. Whether you have a question about materials like amalgam or composite fillings, a cosmetic concern, or something else, talk with your doctor to help the determine the treatment plan that makes the most sense for you.

MyOrthodontist is a North Carolina network of family-owned dental offices specializing in your happier dental experience. A healthier smile means a happier you.

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