The study aimed at finding an optimal combination of acid concentration and etching time when nitric acid is used as etchant for the study of the finer details of human dental enamel structure. Four hundred 2–3‐mm‐thick segments of facio‐lingually sectioned human third molar crowns were assigned to 20 groups with 20 specimens in each group, each group differing with respect to acid concentration (0.1, 1, 2.5, and 5%) and etching time (15, 30, 45, 90, and 180 s). After etching and preparation, specimens were observed in the scanning electron microscope (SEM). Surface roughness/topography increased with increasing acid concentration and increasing etching time, but not in a linear fashion; generally, prisms tended to go from flat‐surfaced to cone‐shaped and prism sheaths from fissure‐like to wedge‐shaped. Intragroup variations and intergroup similarities were considerable. The two major enamel factors determining the etch effect are crystal orientation and prism sheath properties. Other factors, such as distribution of porosities and crystal quality, also contribute probably. Slight to moderate topography is best for observing the finer enamel structure, for example, etching with concentrations in the range 0.1–1% and with etching times in the range 15–90 s, the stronger the acid, the shorter the time. The depth effect of nitric acid is judged to be relatively small. Considerable variations in expression of prism cross‐striations were observed. SEM observations of acid‐etched enamel in carefully selected planes are a powerful method for the study of enamel structure, bearing in mind the artifactual aspects of the observed surface.
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