Inlays And Onlays in Dentistry: What are They and What’s the Difference?

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Chipped teeth or lingering cavities cause discomfort and impact the appearance of your smile.

Inlays And Onlays in Dentistry

Inlays and onlays provide a strong, aesthetically pleasing solution to these dental issues. This article explores the advantages of inlays and onlays over other treatments, procedures, and aftercare tips. 

What Is an Inlay?

An inlay is an indirect dental restoration that’s usually for a cavity that is more centered in the middle of your tooth and hasn’t yet involved the cusps or corners. It is a custom-made restoration, made in a dental lab and inserted into the prepared tooth’s cavity. 

What is an onlay?

An onlay is an indirect restoration that is used for repairing large restorations, with more extensive damage involving corners or biting surfaces. It’s a conservative option that strengthens weakened teeth due to caries, tooth fractures, or large restorations.

Materials used for inlays and onlays

Inlays and onlays can be made from metals, composite resin, and porcelain. E-max and Zirconium. Gold was once the preferred material for inlays and onlays due to its strength and durability, but it is now replaced with tooth-colored restorations. They can still be used in areas where appearance isn’t a concern, such as the back molars.

MetalVery strong and durableNot aesthetically pleasing
PorcelainNatural appearanceMore susceptible to chipping or fracturing
Composite resin Less expensiveLess durable and strong compared to other materials
E-max & ZirconiumStrong, aesthetic, biocompatibleCan be more expensive than other materials

Choosing the Right Dental Restoration: Inlays, Onlays, Fillings and Crowns

An Inlay or Onlay is a much more conservative and durable restorative option. Its strength is contributed by 2 factors, a conservative cavity design

and using high-strength ceramic or metal. This Improved strength translates to restorations lasting up to decades. 

Advantages of Ceramic Inlays and onlays

Ceramic inlays and onlays offer several advantages, including detail and precision, high biocompatibility, stain resistance, aesthetic and natural, resistance to wear and functional loads, and a perfect match to the color, shape, and structure of the patient’s teeth.

Advantages of Ceramic Inlays and onlays
Ceramic Inlay
  • Constructed in a lab, these restorations imitate precise details of the tooth’s structure.
  • Dental inlays and onlays can withstand daily wear and tear and with proper care and maintenance, can last up to many years.
  • Dental inlays and onlays are customized to match the natural color of teeth, offering excellent aesthetics,.This makes them the best choice for restoring front teeth or other visible areas of the mouth.
  • Ceramic inlays and onlays are highly resistant to staining and discoloration which is a significant advantage for restorations in highly visible areas like front teeth. 

 Disadvantages of ceramic inlays/Onlays

 Cost and the risk of fracture in high-risk areas are the only cons of ceramic Inlays/Onlays.

Common Uses of Inlays and Onlays

Restoring Decayed or Damaged Teeth: Inlays and onlays are excellent options to restore teeth with moderate to severe decay or damage.

Inlays and onlays are customized in a dental lab to precisely fit the shape of the prepared area, allowing for a stronger, more durable repair compared to fillings, especially for larger cavities or areas with significant structural weakness.

Conservative tooth preparations: Inlays and onlays have cavity designs that preserve tooth structure. This means no additional tooth removal for the retention of the restoration, unlike that in traditional dental fillings like amalgam and composite.

Strengthening and supporting weakened teeth: Inlays and onlays are dental restorations that provide exceptional support for compromised teeth, strengthen the tooth structure, and increase longevity.

Alternative to Traditional Fillings and Crowns: Traditional fillings are suitable for minor cavities but may not be suitable for larger areas of damage.

Crowns cover the entire visible tooth, which may be unnecessary. Inlays and onlays offer the best of both, providing strength and durability while maintaining a natural appearance by only covering the affected portion.

Inlays and Onlays vs. Other Dental Treatments

Depending on the type of dental damage- minor tooth decay, fracture, or a crack, there are several options available for restoration and repair.

Inlays and Onlays vs. Other Dental Treatments

Your dentist will assess the problem and give you the best recommendations according to your treatment needs. Let’s take a look at how Inlays and onlays compare with other dental restorative options.

Inlays and Onlays vs. Fillings

Inlays and onlays are similar to fillings in restoring decayed or damaged teeth. There are different types of filling materials available, with amalgam and composite resin being the most common. Fillings are used to fill in a small area of your tooth after cleaning out a cavity. However, traditional fillings can have a downside. 

Inlays and onlays are made from stronger materials like ceramic or metal, are more durable, and can custom match natural teeth color, making them a more aesthetically pleasing option for larger restorations.

The positive aspects of fillings are that they need only one dental appointment, are less expensive, and are appropriate for small cavities. Think of inlays and outlays as a middle ground between fillings and crowns .

Inlays and Onlays vs. Crowns

While crowns cover the full visible crown, inlays and onlays only cover a section of the tooth when it comes to providing structural support for damaged teeth. Crowns are better suited for extensive damage or tooth reinforcement while inlays and onlays conserve more natural tooth structure.

The Procedure for Getting Inlays and Onlays

Consultation and assessment: A consultation and assessment is the first step required for the process of getting inlays and onlays.

The dentist evaluates the tooth’s condition at this visit and decides whether onlays or inlays are the best treatment option. They’ll discuss the procedure, potential risks, and benefits and respond to any inquiries you might have.

Preparing teeth for custom-made restoration: The second step is removing the damaged or decayed tooth structure followed by taking an impression of the prepared tooth. The impression is then sent to a dental lab where a customized inlay or onlay is made. 

With a digital impression, the restoration can be fabricated on-site using CAD/CAM technology within 2 hours.

A temporary inlay or onlay is placed on the prepared tooth while the permanent restoration is being made. This is done to preserve bite function and protect the prepared tooth. Temporary restorations are typically made from acrylic and are not as strong or durable as permanent ones. 

Final delivery: Once the permanent inlay or onlay arrives, the dentist removes the temporary restoration, cleans the teeth, checks the color and fit match, and makes any necessary final changes to guarantee a healthy and comfortable bite. 

The Procedure for Getting Inlays and Onlays

Aftercare and Maintenance of Inlays and Onlays

Follow these aftercare tips to preserve the functioning and lifespan of inlays and onlays: brush and floss twice daily, rinse with fluoride mouthwash, schedule regular dental examinations every 6 months, and get dental cleanings to get rid of plaque and tartar buildup.

Potential complications and how to address them:

Sensitivity is one of the possible consequences after the procedure. It is usually temporary and should go away in a few days. Avoid chewing on hard objects since using your teeth as tools as this high pressure can cause chipping or breaking. Get in touch with your dentist for repair or replacement if your inlay or onlay chips or breaks.

Rarely, wear or faulty bonding may cause an inlay or onlay to come loose. Eat a balanced diet, let your dentist know if your bite has changed, and use a mouthguard if you grind your teeth at night to stop future issues.

You can increase the longevity of your inlays and onlays by adhering to these aftercare instructions and practicing proper oral hygiene.


Inlays and onlays are indirect dental restorations that offer a combination of strength, durability, and aesthetics for restoring and repairing damaged teeth. They are made from strong materials like metal or ceramics, providing a more durable alternative to traditional fillings.

They preserve the natural tooth structure, by only covering the affected portion of the tooth. Custom-made inlays and onlays can be precisely matched to the color of surrounding teeth, 

Consult your dentist to discuss the treatment options best suited to your needs. After a thorough assessment, they will be able to guide you better regarding the advantages and disadvantages of each.

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