Smile, you're on Zoom: why more people are taking a second look at their teeth

With close-up video conferencing the new work norm, we've never been more conscious of our teeth. In response, a growing number of people are booking cosmetic treatments with their dentist  
Smile, you're on Zoom: why more people are taking a second look at their teeth

"All of a sudden you’re faced with seeing yourself on the screen – you can’t avoid it. You’re watching yourself speaking, seeing how you interact, how you move your head. It’s hugely exhausting, this pressure of seeing yourself."

The pandemic hit, and Fiona – a Rathgar-based banker – experienced a sea-change in her work life. From being completely office-based with just the odd video call, her job was now 100% conducted from home with up to seven hours daily spent in online meetings.

“Video-conferencing became this very new way of – continuously – connecting with people. All of a sudden you’re faced with seeing yourself on the screen – you can’t avoid it. You’re watching yourself speaking, seeing how you interact, how you move your head. It’s hugely exhausting, this pressure of seeing yourself.”

 She became “quite self-conscious”, with aspects of her appearance – how her hair sat, how her light-coloured eyebrows seemed non-existent – coming under her own sharp scrutiny. 

In particular, she saw her smile. “My bottom teeth were quite crooked and starting to overlap. My two front teeth were receding a bit,” says Fiona, in her 50s, who went to her dentist with the request to “fix me quick!” 

Dublin-based cosmetic dentist Dr Sarah Flannery, has seen first-hand the so-called Zoom boom – the past year’s spike in demand for cosmetic dentistry, for smile-improvement procedures like teeth whitening. “Before Covid, I’d have been booked up two to three weeks in advance. Now my next available appointment’s in July. There’s been a huge influx of patients looking for smile-makeover consultations.” 

The demand became apparent after dentists re-opened for business last May and after the initial backlog of emergency procedures and lockdown-stalled appointments had been cleared. “Three or four times a week, I have patients saying ‘I’m here because of Zoom – I’m seeing myself much more and I need to fix my smile’. Everybody wants whiter teeth. They want them flush and straight. They want minimally invasive treatment done fast – they don’t want any cutting of their teeth or porcelain veneers. They just want to tweak their smile.” 

Dr Flannery’s patients are mostly aged between 25 and 40 with three-quarters of them female. She’s doing a lot of short-course (seven or 14-week) Invisalign treatments to straighten teeth, composite veneers/bonding to close gaps and teeth-whitening procedures. “Whitening’s a great non-invasive way of giving yourself a lift,” she says.

Dr Sarah Flannery: witnessing a Zoom boom in her cosmetic dentistry business
Dr Sarah Flannery: witnessing a Zoom boom in her cosmetic dentistry business

Higher disposable income

Dr Caroline Robins, chair of the GP Committee of the Irish Dental Association, owns Kiwi Dental in Carlow. Last summer she started seeing patients she hadn’t seen in quite a few years, patients for whom dentistry hadn’t been a high priority. Now they were coming in because of pain or simply for that check-up they’d been postponing – and they were making throwaway comments. They were describing staring at themselves on screen and it wasn’t what they imagined they looked like.

“They were saying ‘my teeth are a bit crooked at the front’ or ‘they look very yellow’ or ‘that gap I’ve been annoyed by, I’m really seeing it now on-screen’. So, alongside what they’d come in for, they were asking how they could improve their smile.” These were patients, says Dr Robins, who might have held their face at a particular angle for a photo so as not to highlight what they perceived as a flaw – now they felt no escape under the Zoom spotlight.  “They want to tweak the position of their teeth, to make their smile more harmonious or they’re coming to have their teeth bleached, to freshen their smile. It’s about deflecting the eye away from what the patient thinks people are looking at.”

 Among Dr Robins’ patients (she notices a “slight” female bias for all procedures) was a man who’d begun noticing gaps between his front teeth. “I wasn’t prepared to cut his teeth down for crowns or veneers so I did bonding, and he’s delighted.” Another patient was really noticing her teeth looking “like dark caves”, so Dr Robins built out the teeth in “tooth-coloured filling material”, giving the effect of teeth “sitting forward” in her smile. “She feels much happier to smile now when doing online meetings.”

 Aside from the self-scrutinising influence of Zoom, Dr Robins puts the rising demand for cosmetic dentistry down to people having more disposable income – they haven’t been spending on holidays, restaurants or getting their hair done – as well as having more time. “I’m seeing a lot of patients during working hours that I’d previously only seen after 5pm.” 

Dr Flannery believes the Zoom boom is also due to people wanting a day out at a time when little else is available to them.

In general, cosmetic tooth-whitening for both upper and lower teeth will cost €280 approximately. Composite veneer prices range from €150 to €350 per tooth, while composite bonding costs in the region of €150 per tooth.

Looking in a mirror

Chartered work and organisational psychologist Kathleen Halligan runs leadership and team development programmes across a range of sectors and often sees a reluctance to turn on the video for online meetings: “There are organisations I work with, where people typically aren’t turning on the camera.” 

Halligan says the brain can’t “consciously” concentrate on two different activities at the same time – multi-tasking is only possible if we’re executing learned behaviours, for example, an action you do repeatedly, like applying makeup while having a phone conversation. “So if I’m trying to concentrate on what my colleagues are saying at a meeting, while distracted by evaluating my appearance then I may not pick up on some vital information needed to execute a certain task.” 

Indeed, researchers at Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab have recently identified a number of physiological reasons for ‘Zoom fatigue’ – the very real feeling of tiredness that follows a day of video meetings. They say the mix of prolonged eye contact, constantly seeing yourself in real-time, restricted mobility and the cognitive load of trying to make up for the lack of non-verbal cues all contribute to this sense of tiredness many of us are getting from video-calling.

Halligan also believes the reluctance to turn on the video may reflect a discomfort with seeing oneself online when – up to last year – people were used to in-person work meetings that didn’t involve seeing themselves.

 “There’s an element of ‘not minding being looked at – but I don’t want to see myself’. People say: ‘I’ll turn on the video but get me off the screen’.”

 She sees a big difference between looking at yourself in the mirror where “you’re seeing yourself straight on and maybe fixing yourself up”, and seeing yourself in the virtual world where you’re thinking ‘I never knew one side of my mouth tends to go down when I say certain things’. Zoom, she says, perhaps magnifying what many of us do when seeing ourselves in a group photo. “We don’t tend to focus on the others in the picture. We look at ourselves and possibly say things like ‘look at the state of me’. This is probably what’s happening when we see ourselves in Zoom meetings.”

We’re also seeing our face up close. “In a [traditional] meeting, you wouldn’t have such an intense view of someone’s face. And in that exploration of how we look, our attention is drawn to our teeth.” 

Teeth-whitening - one of the most popular procedures
Teeth-whitening - one of the most popular procedures

Stress resulting in cracked teeth

The pandemic and successive lockdowns have been highly stressful for most. Dr Robins sees the evidence in people’s mouths. “I’m seeing a lot of cracked teeth. People are grinding because of stress. They’re waking up in the morning and their jaw muscles are sore. They can’t open their jaws very wide. They’re complaining of headaches. I see it in 30 to 55-year-olds – people who’re working, stressed around catching Covid, who’ve had to do home-schooling and who’re worrying about parents.” 

Some patients are clenching their teeth while at work too. “They’re working away at the computer, zoning in on something and not conscious of what they’re doing,” says Dr Robins, who’s making and fitting “many more” night-guards to combat nocturnal teeth-grinding.

With such increased stress, it’s easy to see how – our faces constantly lit up on the screen during the working day – any qualms about our dental appearance might be amplified, our self-critical voice heightened.

Admitting it took her a long time to adjust to seeing herself so much, Fiona says she did a 14-week course of Invisalign. “It was a flexible way for me to continue working and having meetings and nobody knew I was wearing aligners."

Confirming it “fully corrected” her smile, Fiona says she could easily name eight women who’ve had the same treatment. “They’re not all from my profession,” she says.

After the Invisalign, she had her teeth whitened. “It really finished it off. I felt a million dollars and looked like a film star. I don’t know if people would say I look different – I know I have much greater confidence in my smile.” 

Doing the white thing

Dr Sarah Flannery says tooth-whitening is one of the most popular cosmetic procedures.

The primary products used in teeth-whitening are hydrogen peroxide and carbide peroxide – they can easily permeate dental hard tissues.

Whitening treatments can be good for both internal and external staining, but only natural teeth can be whitened – in most cases, tooth-coloured restorations, fillings or crowns won’t bleach.

Whitening treatments include surgery-based bleaching procedures, dentist-supplied products for home use, and over-the-counter (OTC) whiteners. OTC products are of much lower concentration than dentist-supplied ones – the latter generally contain 6% concentration.

Temporary tooth sensitivity and gum inflammation are the most common adverse effects – both are reversible and not long-lasting.

“Whitening teeth makes the surface shiny – it inhibits bacteria sticking,” says Dr Flannery.

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