Why more and more people are getting their teeth whitened

Irish people are increasingly looking for that Hollywood smile, and dentists are reaping the benefits, says Dave Kenny.

I’VE always hated my teeth. Since teenhood, my mouth has been more overcrowded than a Japanese subway train.

When I was 14, I had five teeth removed and a horrible-looking brace shoved into my gob.

The contraption was moulded to the roof of my mouth and had two ‘antennae’ which stuck out between my canines. When I smiled it looked like I was eating a grasshopper.

Before going to school discos, I’d pop it in a jar so as not to ‘ruin my chances’ (not that I had any). It would take ages for my mouth to readjust, and I couldn’t speak properly for hours.

The first brace-free dance encounter went like this: “Ngoo ooo whant to ndance with hmee?” I asked the object of my lust.

“Are you having a stroke?” she replied.

“No.”

“Then get lost, you weirdo, or I’ll call a bouncer.”

The braces didn’t work and I had overlapping teeth until I was 40. I was so self-conscious that I learned to ‘half-smile’, so as not to reveal the full extent of my dental disarray. I have decades worth of photos where I look either glum or simpering.

Then my brilliant dentist — Eddie Goggins of Cabinteely Dental Care — filed them down to give the illusion of straightness. The confidence boost was immediate and I began smiling, full beam. I can’t understate the impact. It definitely improved my TV and event-hosting work.

The positive reaction was immediate too. People treat you differently if you smile at them (unless you’re Shane McGowan). According to a study by psychiatrists in New South Wales, people “who smiled were judged as more likeable and approachable than non-smilers and non-authentic smilers”.

Not that this is fresh news. More and more Irish people are turning to cosmetic dentistry to get that Hollywood smile — and the cheapest and most effective way of achieving it is by teeth whitening.

Celebrities such as Keith Duffy (below) are making us more aware of the benefits. A good smile can lead to wealth and stardom (if you have the looks and charm and intelligence to go with it).

In 2011, Keith admitted spending £20,000 overhauling his teeth. “I know it’s a lot of money but I see it as an investment. Some people buy expensive laptops for work. I need to look my best.”

At least he’s open about it. Despite plundering my contacts book and sending begging emails by the dozen, I couldn’t get one other Irish celeb to go on the record about their dental work.

In Britain, cosmetic procedures such as whitening accounted for a 20% rise in dentists’ incomes since 2010. Celebrities such as Holly Willoughby, Konnie Huq, and Martin Amis have all apparently undergone teeth bleaching or straightening procedures — and the public is following suit.

There are no figures available for Ireland but the British industry is estimated to be worth £1bn annually. That’s a lot to smile about.

“Obviously it is good for everybody,” says Eddie Goggins. 

“It’s good for our patients’ dental health as the pre-whitening check-up will highlight any underlying problems that are often much easier to resolve if discovered at an earlier stage and of course it is good for dentists from a financial point of view.”

Unfortunately, there are non-dental ‘cowboy’ operators who are putting the public at risk by offering quick — yet potentially dangerous — whitening procedures. Last week in Britain, trading standards officers swooped on 40 beauty salons which were using whiteners containing more than 200 times the EU’s legal level of bleach.

In 2012 the EU ruled that only dentists — or dental health professionals working to a dentist’s prescription — are allowed to carry out whitening. 

Yet many unregistered technicians are providing a cut-price service in beauty salons. The public have been warned about using similar services here.

“In the past two decades, Irish people have become more aware of how important an attractive smile is to their overall appearance,” says Goggins, who has been a dentist for 24 years.

“There’s been an increasing demand for all types of cosmetic dental procedures at our clinic, but whitening is by far the most sought-after service. We always stress that the only place to get your teeth safely and effectively whitened is in your dentist’s chair.

“About 75% of patients coming for whitening are women. They are from all age groups, while men are generally 18 to 30s. Women often come in with a friend or in a group — such as a wedding party. They are much more open about cosmetic procedures.”

So why are more people getting their teeth whitened?

“Naturally, TV and Hollywood play their parts. People want to look their best and there are few things more attractive than a good smile. The more you flash a smile, the more the world will smile back at you. Tooth whitening really boosts your confidence and self- esteem.”

Anne Twomey, the president of the Irish Dentists Association, has been in business for 22 years and has also seen an increase in people seeking whitening.

“It’s become a very normal procedure. As we get older our hair gets lighter and our teeth get darker. Most people are aware of this and will get their teeth whitened at some stage,” says the Carrigaline-based dentist.

“It’s one of the procedures I love doing as it’s life-changing. Whitening can take years off a person’s appearance.”

“I have as many men as women being whitened. Men will come in to have their teeth done before getting married. Let’s face it — they have very little else to do! “The oldest man I’ve ‘whitened’ was 75. He was walking his daughter up the aisle and wanted to flash a nice smile at the guests.”

Surely putting bleach into someone’s mouth is fraught with dangers? Actress Julie Walters spoke out against whitening recently, after having a bad experience when she tried to remove tea stains.

“Before the 2012 EU directive, many salon and tanning businesses got involved in tooth whitening,” says Goggins.

“At that time it was easy for anyone to import the products and in most cases the treatments were carried out by non-dentally trained people. Horror stories about poor cross-infection control, lip burns, and dissatisfied customers were quite common.

“The Irish dental council at that time had no power to intervene as there was no European ruling as to whether this was a cosmetic or a clinical procedure. Similar problem stories were becoming commonplace throughout Europe.

“In October 2012, an EU directive (76/768/EEC) clarified this matter and there have been an increasing number of prosecutions throughout Europe for inappropriate and negligent whitening procedures carried out by non-dental professionals. It also makes it illegal to import these controlled products.

“In Ireland, there are a number of businesses that had blossomed before the ruling that are still trying to survive by offering treatments using alternative methods. However, there is no clinical research to support the use of anything other than the hydrogen peroxide/carbamide peroxide gels.

“Patient safety is paramount, so the advice to the public is: Only go to regulated professionals, ie dentists; if in doubt ask for the Dental Council Registration; ask for the product used and its concentration; if a light is being used ask why — it has no effect; contact the Irish Medicines Board if you have any concerns.”

Anne Twomey agrees: “If the right product is put on by the right person then there should be no problem. Tooth whitening is much safer than using a whitening toothpaste. 

"They can be very abrasive. It’s like exercise: It’s the little things we do that have the greatest effect. So a once-off whitening procedure is better for your teeth than using a whitening toothpaste for 10 years.”

I know this from my own experience. I wore down my canines using powders and abrasive pastes. I thought their brown colour was due to staining. What I was seeing was actually dentine: The darker material beneath the enamel — which I had brushed away.

Twomey warns against using quick fixes and unqualified ‘practitioners’.

“I had one young girl of about 20 who went to a cowboy operation in Cork. She ended up with her whole mouth chemically burned. People are going to places with untrained staff who use too much product on their teeth.”

Then there’s the problem of ‘bleachorexia’, which is an unhealthy obsession with bleaching.

Many disreputable ‘bleachers’ are either unaware of this condition — or just don’t care.

“Dentists all get one or two patients who see a fantastic, quick result with the bleaching and then come back a month later to say their teeth have returned to their former colour,” says Twomey.

“We show them photos of their teeth and try to convince them that that’s not the case. We also point out that, in winter, the contrast between the skin and the teeth is less pronounced, and so teeth can look darker.”

It’s easy to see how some people can become obsessed with whitening their teeth when the results are so dramatic. I had mine done a few years back as ‘research’ for an article. 

In truth, I was doing a lot of TV work and wanted to get rid of my cig/coffee/wine stains. I was delighted with my shiny gnashers. It was the first time I’ve ever left the dentist’s with a grin on my face.

So can you get a Hollywood smile from over-the-counter treatments?Goggins is sceptical.

“Products like whitening toothpaste, mouthwashes and whitening pens do work, but their effects are limited. Only products with 0.1% hydrogen peroxide are approved. There is also a large number of products available online. Many of these are illegal and can range from being useless to being outright dangerous.”

Prices vary between dentists, but the ballpark figure for whitening is between €200 and €300.

“At Cabinteely Dental Care we provide a full dental health check before recommending any new patients to go ahead with it,” says Goggins.

“Included in the treatment is a session of extensive cleaning with our hygienist, as whitening on its own is often not effective if the surface cleaning and gum health is not sorted out beforehand.

“Then we provide lab-made, custom-fitted whitening trays, and instruct you on how to get the best result from your whitening procedure. All of this costs €199, which we feel is pretty good value. Repeat treatments can cost much less.”

Finally, one last warning about teeth whitening: It may attract unwanted attention. In 2011, one of America’s most wanted men — Whitey Bulger — was tracked down because of his moll’s penchant for teeth whitening.

The FBI knew that Catherine Greig had her teeth cleaned once a month, so they ran a series of ‘have-you-seen-this-woman’ ads on TV and in the American Dental Association’s newsletter. Someone recognised her and Bulger was, ultimately, nicked.

Whitey had been undone by... whitening.

Teeth whitening - Some uselss facts  

Clark Gable had all his removed when he was 32 after suffering from serious gum problems. The dentist fitted a plate but the gum infection returned leading to the removal of the star’s gall bladder. 

Marlene Dietrich had several molars removed to enhance her looks – at her studio’s request. So did Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. The latter suffered with oral issues for the rest of her life and needed round-the-clock medical care in her mid-60s because of bad dentistry.

Famous toothy smiles 

The Bradley: Cooper is the only man who can smile like a toothpaste salesman when he has a hangover (you’ve seen the movie?). You too can have a smile like his: just spray your face with Cuprinol to make your teeth stand out.

The Julia: Julia Roberts has Hollywood’s most famous smile. Part coy, part girl-next door, she remains one of the top-earning female film stars. And rightly so.

The Morahan: Caroline has a smile that would melt ice, even in the coldest regions of the world. Now based in LA, it’s a pity we don’t see more of her on our screens.

The Posh: Victoria’s smile is more precious than the Hope diamond: everyone knows it must be magnificent, but it’s rarely seen in public. Either that, or she is simply feeling grumpy.

The George: Need we say any more? Even straight men fancy him. Go on, admit it.

The Eddie Murphy: Great teeth, annoying I’m-so-cheeky grin — it has helped him to earn millions at the box office. The fact that he’s hugely talented is a factor too.


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