The real reason we’re obsessed with bleaching our teeth
Teeth bleaching is an old trend that is back under the shiny blue lights, thanks to sponsored posts of celebrities with glowing gobs, from at-home-teeth-whitening, on Instagram.
It is yet another procedure to add to our list of ‘necessities’ for beauty maintenance; from shaving to lasering and injecting, more money is spent on aesthetics than education and social services. And many of these, like teeth bleaching, have become so commonplace that you can even get them done in the middle of a shopping mall on your lunchbreak.
Why are we so obsessed with our appearance?
A 2016 study published in Evolution and Human Behaviour suggests that our perception of sexual attractiveness is linked to cues that signal our potential to produce healthy offspring, such as good general health, developmental stability and fertility. We see women with petite jawbones as beautiful, for example, because it may reflect higher levels of female hormones and thus higher fertility.
In other words, humans have an “invisible radar” that assesses beauty based on the suitability to be a potential mate.
What’s this got to do with teeth?
Our teeth can reveal a lot more about ourselves than we’d care to share on Tinder. Poor oral health can signify a number of health issues such as anaemia, kidney disease, dry-mouth and diabetes, to name a few. Sydney University dental graduate Dr Steven Lin says stained teeth can also result from childhood fever, antibiotic use or digestive disorders.
As we get older, our teeth get yellower too. There is a natural thinning of the outer enamel layer, which reveals more of the yellow dentin below.
“Just as white, straight teeth convey youth, a smile with crooked, discoloured, worn, or missing teeth is associated with an aged look,” says Edmond Hewlett, professor of restorative dentistry at UCLA’s School of Dentistry.
So our desire for whiter teeth stems from a deep seated desire to improve our sexual prospects and appearance of health.
Go too far however and you risk having the opposite of the intended effect. According to one study, what we consider beautiful is, like a perfume or piece of music, a delicate balance of details: the less natural it appears, the less likely it is to appeal.
Dr Nikolaus Troje, one of the researchers said: “We found that attractiveness depends on internal consistency… Our visual system is a sensitive lie detector that perceives even the slightest inconsistencies and responds negatively to them.”
Shining the light on whitening
There is no shortage of ways to bleach your teeth: in-chair laser whitening, dentist-issued take home kits, over the counter kits, toothpastes and, of course, the latest “natural” alternatives such as activated charcoal and oil pulling. Most work to some degree, but the time it takes varies depending on the level of active ingredients.
The least effective of the traditional methods is arguably whitening toothpaste. The SMH recently reported on a Choice investigation into the active properties of 17 popular so-called whitening toothpastes found that a no frills toothpaste would likely produce the same effect. Manufacturers label their products as ‘whitening’ based on clever small print, rather than their actual ability to bleach teeth.
Sydney dentist Dr Steven Lin agrees, saying while some people may see a small difference, he doesn’t see many patients who have the whitening result they want from using these products.
Home bleaching kits will get better results, but don’t expect to see an immediate change. Philips Zoom dentist Dr Luke Cronin says take home kits use a low chemical composition of the active bleaching agent, hydrogen peroxide, so it can take multiple applications before you achieve noticeable whitening. He adds that it’s a great first step if you want to go a few shades lighter.
However, not everybody is a suitable candidates for bleaching, so it is worth checking out the health of your teeth first, before trying stronger chemicals.
“Whitening can, in some cases, cause extreme sensitivity,” says Dr Lin. “If there are pre-existing conditions like improperly formed enamel, tooth decay or gum recession or periodontal disease may place the patient at a higher risk of debilitating sensitivity and shouldn’t have tooth whitening before having the condition treated.
“In rare cases, teeth whitening may cause damage to the pulp of the tooth that become infected, causing a dental abscess and may require root canal treatment.”
For the rest of us, some temporary gum irritation and sensitivity is a risk factor with whitening, but when done correctly, bleaching doesn’t cause permanent damage to teeth and gums.
As a general guide, it’s safe to undergo a course of bleaching – either a single in-chair whitening treatment or two week use of a take home kit – once or twice per year.
Both dentists agreed that whitening delivered by a dental professional offers the safest and most natural results because they can monitor the length and intensity of the treatment.
And while it may set you back more than a treatment you buy off the internet, you minimise the risk of overbleaching or chemical burns. There’s nothing sexy about that.
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