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Our obsession with white teeth is unrealistic

In offices around the country, dentists are having a hard time keeping up with the demand for brighter, whiter teeth. Patients come in, and many have unrealistic expectations regarding just how white their teeth can become, say dentists.

We can blame it on the advertising industry for Photoshopping teeth, turning them into snow white specimens, or on the entertainment world for outfitting actors and actresses with porcelain veneers. We can even blame the dental industry for its constant promise of whiter teeth if someone just gets the right treatment. From whitening toothpaste to at-home whitening kits to procedures at the dentist’s office, we’re led to believe that perfect pearly whites are just a few easy steps away.

But there’s a price we pay for those whiter-than-white teeth. Yet, according to dentists like Ronald Perry, director of the Gavel Center for Restorative Research at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, not only can we not all achieve magazine-quality white, but our very definition of white is changing.

“What was once considered natural white is now yellow to people,” Perry told Nautilus. “Sometimes there’s really not a shade I can pick that’s white enough.”

When Perry talks about picking a shade, he means from the VITA classical Shade Guide, a tool dentists use for color matching and discussing desired results with patients.

vita classical shade guide for tooth whiteningFor 50 years, dentists have used the 16 colors on the VITA shade guide for tooth whitening. (Photo: VITA )

Rather than a more natural creamy color, many people want what Perry calls, “TB1,” or toilet-bowl white. Realistically, short of getting veneers which can cost between $1,000 and $2,500 per tooth (and sometimes more), depending on the shade of white someone starts with, there is only so much any whitening treatment can do.

Dr. Darren Flowers, a dentist in Anthem, Arizona, notes on his website about some patients’ unrealistic expectations: “As a general rule, dentists will whiten a patient’s smile to match or be slightly lighter than the whites of the eyes. This will draw attention to an exceptional smile without it looking fake or overdone. Unfortunately, some patients are not happy with these results. They want their teeth whiter beyond natural.”

Flowers warns, “However, teeth cannot be whitened beyond a certain point no matter how many times you use the whitening strips or gel. The truth is bleaching products do not really whiten teeth. They work by eliminating stains on the surface of the enamel.”

In fact, research published in April 2019 suggests those popular strips are actually damaging your teeth. The crucial ingredient is the hydrogen peroxide — which may also be in treatments used at your dentist’s office — and its effect on protein in the teeth, reports WebMD. For those who need a quick primer on the structure of teeth, there’s the enamel on the outside, but the majority of each tooth is made of dentin, and that’s where the protein resides.

Not all dentists agree on the harm being caused, but Science Daily looked at three experiments that disagree with them: All three experiments found that the peroxide caused fragmentation in the dentin, making it less structurally sound.

For those who do desire whiter teeth, but who don’t want to take part in using the countless whitening products on the market that bleach the area, teeth experts recommend avoiding foods that are known to cause staining such as coffee, tea, red wine and soda. Or, if those foods are consumed, rinsing your mouth with water right after drinking or eating can help reduce the effect.

On top of that, regular brushing, flossing and scheduled cleanings at the dentist can all help keep teeth looking white, although, maybe not as white as some might prefer.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in August 2015.

Our obsession with white teeth is unrealistic

Americans want blinding bright smiles, but there’s only so much dental treatments can do, and some are even harmful.


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