The Inside Scoop: What’s Radiation REALLY About?

When you run a dental practice in Boise, you get a lot of questions. Our patients want to stay informed so they can make good healthcare decisions. If we get a question often enough, we figure it’s worth answering in the form of a blog post.

Our patients often ask us about radiation— is it safe? Is it detrimental to your overall health?

It’s a good question, and it’s one we’re glad to answer.

Unfortunately, misinformation about the amount of radiation in a simple dental x-ray abounds. Worse yet, some bloggers and unreputable websites use scare tactics to push people away from informed healthcare decisions.

We’ve assembled the facts (and a few handy charts) to help you understand radiation, the role it plays in dental x-rays, and your overall health and safety.

The Truth About X-Rays

Many people think because a dental x-ray takes place on and around their face, they’ll be subject to intense radiation.

That’s not true at all.

We encounter radiation all the time in our day-to-day lives. It’s in the air, in the soil, and in the food we eat. The Health Physics Society’s site has an excellent writeup on natural radiation, and tells you how much radiation the average person is exposed to from their environment. exists to dispell common myths about radiation, such as the common myth that dental x-rays cause headaches or make people sick. This is outright false.

Radiation is all around us, and it comes in more forms than you might think.

From the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education:

“Radiation is energy that comes from a source and travels through some material or through space. Light, heat and sound are types of radiation.”

X-rays are just another form of electromagnetic radiation, and a common dental x-ray exposes you to much less radiation than you might think.

Levels of Radiation

So, how much radiation can you safely absorb, per year? Radiation is generally measured in units called sieverts and, for our purposes, we’ll mostly discuss radiation in terms of millisieverts and microsieverts.

Here’s a helpful graphic from the creator of the webcomic XKCD, which puts it all in perspective.

From PBS:

“One sievert, the unit measurement for a dose of radiation, will cause illness if absorbed all at once, and 8 sieverts will result in death, even with treatment. According to the chart, the average person safely absorbs about 3.65 millisieverts (or 0.00365 sieverts) of radiation annually, through simple activities like living in a brick or concrete building (70 microsieverts a year) or sleeping next to another person (0.05 microsieverts). A person living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant absorbs 0.09 microsieverts of radiation per year, which is less than the amount absorbed by eating a banana.”

That’s right. Eating a banana. The banana passes on .1 microsieverts of radiation, whereas taking a flight from New York to Los Angeles causes you to absorb 40 microsieverts of radiation.

For comparison, a standard dental x-ray causes you to absorb just five microsieverts of electromagnetic radiation, which is less than the dose of background radiation you absorb on an average day.

This chart from InformationIsBeautiful, which uses data from the BBC, Mayo Clinic, and other sources should put it into better perspective:  

Radiation dosage chart

As you can see, dental x-rays are pretty far towards the low-end of radiation doses.

But, what about more comprehensive dental x-rays? This chart shows the microsieverts of radiation you absorb from advanced dental x-rays, versus the time you might spend tanning:

Dental x-ray comparison chart

A typical dental x-ray comes with a lower dose of radiation than your average day of just living on this planet.

Absorbing too much radiation can make you very sick, but a dental x-ray doesn’t even come close to passing on that much radiation. In fact, it’s the equivalent of eating about 50 bananas.

That’s a lot of bananas for sure, but it’s not a lot of radiation.

We hope this answers your questions about dental x-ray radiation, and we hope it helps you make a more informed health care choice. If you want to call or visit our dental practice in Boise, we’ll be happy to supply you with even more information.


~Dr. Wagner