Do you struggle with sensitivity after placing composites? Are your patients reluctant to proceed with treatment because they have had sensitivity in the past after having composites placed by you or another dentist? Have you yourself come to believe that sensitivity after placing composites is normal? 

composite sensitivity

If you answered yes to any of these questions, keep reading for four easy tips to help make sensitivity with your composites a rarity.

Excellent isolation

This is No. 1 because without this you are sunk and can in fact expect sensitivity no matter how well you do everything else. For me, hands down, this means an Isolite, Isodry (Figure 1) or rubber dam in the posterior since I believe cotton roll isolation and dry angles are just too risky in the posterior. The risk for contamination is high. 

Figure 1

When it comes to the anterior, you can at times safely use something like cotton roll isolation. If that is not enough, then you are best to go to an Isolite, Isodry or rubber dam just like the posterior. The key thing to remember is even the tiniest bit of contamination means you are sunk.

Proper etching

With the advent of self-etching bonding resins, this has in some way gotten easier. However, the fact of the matter is with most, if not all, bonding agents (even the self-etching ones) it is best to etch the enamel. With some agents, like the universal bonding systems such as Adhese Universal from Ivoclar and Scotchbond Universal from 3M, it can be advisable to still etch the dentin depending on the case.

The trouble with sensitivity usually comes from improper etching of the enamel; over-etching is usually the biggest culprit. The typical time for dentin is 10-15 seconds, but you should check the instructions for the specific product you are using. When it comes to enamel it is way harder to over-etch it, but the typical time is 15-20 seconds. The key here, if you are pre-etching the dentin, is remembering that time is critical. You need to be right on time, not over and not under.

Proper drying

As we know, after etching we must rinse and dry the tooth. Here we have another big potential source for sensitivity if we have etched the dentin. That source is over-drying the dentin and collapsing the dentinal tubules. This results in poor penetration of our bonding resin and, therefore, sensitivity.

tooth dryer
Figure 2

It is important to note that even if you get the drying part right in that you do not over-dry (think moist dry not bone dry), it is also important to be sure you are using clean air to dry the teeth. What I mean by this is it is not uncommon for our air-water syringes to blow a little water or – worse – oil with them when using the air. In my office I have switched to Adec warm air tooth dryers (Figure 2) to eliminate this risk. If Adec tooth dyers are not in your future or you just want an immediate way to help check for contamination coming from your air-water syringe tips, then blow air across your clean mouth mirror. You should see nothing on your mirror.

Proper curing

This one is simple: We have to make sure our composite is fully cured all the way though, otherwise we can expect bad things. The key here is to make sure our layers are not too thick and to get as close as you can to whatever you are curing without touching it. You must also cure for the length of time specified by the manufacture for the material you are curing. 

light meter
Figure 3

I cannot stress enough the need to get close enough with your curing light; small increases in distance greatly decreases your lights curing intensity. Another important thing to consider is periodic testing with a light meter (Figure 3) to assure your light’s intensity is as it should be. Playing with these meters is also a great way to see just how fast the intensity drops as distance increases. Lastly you also need to assure your light guide is undamaged and the tip is clean.

(Click this link for more dentistry articles by Dr. John Carson.)

John R. Carson, D.D.S., P.C., Spear Visiting Faculty and Contributing Author -


Commenter's Profile Image Nora A.
September 24th, 2017
what would be the best course of action after a patient presents with sensitivity remaining 3 months after a small composite restoration on distal-buccal aspect of posterior tooth?
Commenter's Profile Image John C.
September 25th, 2017
Good question Nora, I would start by looking at the following: 1. What makes it hurt. If its is non-lingering sensitivity to cold I am thinking reversible pulpitis. If it's lingering to cold or hot I am way more worried about irreversible and needing endo. If its pain on release then I am thinking cracked-tooth syndrome. 2. As far as sources of sensitivity if the bites good then I am thinking was the restoration deep, did I get a bad bond and do I just need to replace it, could it be referred sinus or muscle pain? So in short I would start by determining if it's reversible or irreversible then look for the source/cause. You might also find it helpful to go to Spear Talk and share this case so myself and other can look harder with more info and it with/for you. Hope that helps, John
Commenter's Profile Image Julia N.
November 18th, 2018
With a product like Scotchbond Universal, when is it advisable to etch the dentin? I have been selectively etching enamel for 15 seconds only.
Commenter's Profile Image John C.
November 18th, 2018
Good question Julia! Since we know not all dentin etches the same and that the less “ideal” the dentin is the longer it takes to etch well one great time would be when dealing with sclerotic dentin or any less than ideal dentin.