In their quest for ever-whiter smiles, Americans have taken a shine to teeth that resemble Chiclets more than choppers.
And yet the demand for teeth bleaching has increased 300 percent over the past five years, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry — it’s now the top demand of patients ages 20 to 50, and second only to crowns and bridges in patients older than 50.
"White teeth are the No. 1 cosmetic thing that’s being done lately," said Michelle Nielson, manager of the BriteSmile at Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix.
Patients come in and say, "I want a Ho llywood-white smile," said Dr. Salim Shafi of A-McDowell Dental in Phoenix, whose office also offers BriteSmile.
Tempe mechanic Mark D’Annunzio is hooked. He finished a multimonth run with a custom bite tray and at-home bleaching solution about eight months ago; he doesn’t drink coffee or tea or smoke, so his teeth haven’t regressed to their original shade.
Most whitening treatments can last up to two years, but D’Annunzio is already ready to go back to the bleach.
"I’m trying to get them whiter," he said. "Within reason — I don’t want to look like I had my teeth capped or anything."
Other people don’t have such limitations. Today’s dream teeth are no longer just pearly — the dull ecru luster of pearls has been bleached to a brilliant, diamond-bright shine.
These people get lumped in with other celebrators of excess: The sun worshippers who think they need "just a little more color" even though their hide’s been tanned like leather; the guy at the gym who’s overcompensating for something by developing pectoral muscles the size of D-cups; the women with breast implants that double as flotation devices in case of a water landing.
Shafi said factors such as a person’s skin color can influence the perception of how white a tooth appears. Halle Berry’s teeth will always look whiter than, say, Nicole Kidman’s because they’re set off against her darker skin. The color of your lipstick can also make people think your teeth are whiter — or yellower — than they are.
The only sign a person might be going too white, too fast, is increased sensitivity of the teeth or gums. Bleaching "makes the surface of the tooth a little more porous than normal, but that’s temporary," Shafi said.
Tooth bleaching is an elective procedure, which means most dentists wouldn’t shy away from offering it to a paying customer who wanted it. (Would a restaurant refuse to serve a patron because they look like they’ve already eaten a little too healthily beforehand?)
A good dentist will, however, warn them ahead of time about the results. "If a patient’s teeth are already very light, I tell them I think they’ll be disappointed in the result," Shafi said. "Because you charge them for a procedure and the difference is not so great."
Employees at Nielson’s dental spa have begun turning away customers who would not have benefited much from a significant upgrade in whiteness.
"The treatment wouldn’t have made enough of a difference," she said. "We had to tell them their teeth were white enough already."