Generally, dental implants have two parts: the fixture (which is screwed into the bone) and the abutment (to which the prosthetic crown is cemented). The abutment is attached to the implant fixture after the healing period.
Originally, both parts were made of titanium. Titanium was (and still is) the most favored material by most dental clinicians and implant manufacturing companies due to its high biocompatibility.
a. Titanium implant fixture with zirconia abutment
The improvements in new ceramic materials made it possible to have the abutment part made of a special kind of white ceramic called zirconia.
Although pure zirconium is technically a metal (based on its location on the periodic table), the crystalline form used for dental implants is more similar to a ceramic, so it doesn't act like a metal in the mouth.
Zirconia is commonly known to be more tissue friendly than titanium and it provides better aesthetics. In this variation, the implant fixture is still made of titanium.
b. All zirconia implants
The next step was to develop a full zirconia implant. In 2011, a one-piece zirconia implant (fixture and abutment) was introduced into the market. Even though relatively new, there has been a considerable increase in the use of these types of implants.
Zirconia implants benefits
One of the main advantages of a one-piece zirconia implant is that it has no prosthetic connections, where bacteria can grow, and therefore can lead to better gum health.
Because zirconium is white, it is more aesthetically pleasing and natural-looking. Normally, the whole implant restoration is metal-free, so the problem of matching the shade of adjacent teeth while hiding the dark color of the metal abutment is avoided.
Gums are healthier around ceramic materials and better preserved. Because no metal is involved, the color of the gums will remain natural-pink.
Another quality of zirconia is its resistance to corrosion, which, theoretically, does not apply to titanium. Being a metal, titanium can be subjected to corrosion, although this is highly unlikely.
Zirconium implants are hypoallergenic, giving patients with titanium allergies (which are extremely rare) an alternative for dental implants.
Drawbacks and concerns
The main problem with zirconia implants is the lack of studies examining the chemical and structural composition and the level of osseointegration achieved with zirconia implants.
The studies conducted so far do not allow for the recommendation of the use of zirconia implants in daily practice. However, zirconia dental implants have the potential to become a viable alternative to titanium implants, but they are not yet in routine clinical use.
There is no question that titanium implants have the best long-term data to support their use. The data on zirconia implants is much more limited.
However, zirconia implants have certain advantages, such as superior aesthetics and better gum health around them, but it is not clear how well they integrate with the bone.
When planning for dental implants, it is always good to ask your oral surgeon about the different materials that are available to you. Zirconium dental implants may be the solution that works best for you.
Last review and update: November 2017