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Would you prefer useless or expensive? The truth about tooth-whitening

Dentists will tell you cheerfully – and accurately – how little over-the-counter products do. But they’re keen to get in on the business

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

Ruby Wax makes the point (repeatedly but it still gets a laugh) that the British discovered the practice of brushing their teeth in the 1980s. I dare say our dental hygiene is the butt of more jokes throughout North America, where wearing a brace is something of a fashion statement.

But something strange is happening on our side of the pond. This struck me — in fact, almost blinded me — a couple of weeks ago when a hotel manager introduced himself at a central London gathering and dazzled me. His teeth were super-white. They were super-straight, too, but it was the brilliance that startled me. It was as if someone had told the poor fellow to open wide and poured a pot of Dulux gloss into his mouth.

I couldn’t take him seriously. He might just as well have worn a badge saying ‘Sleazy Salesman.’ In fact, I’m ashamed to say that the whiter someone’s teeth are the less I trust him — or her for that matter. Perhaps that’s why Simon Cowell and his X Factor crowd come across as such phonies, their flashy teeth reflecting their flashy lives.

It’s a growing phenomenon. Just look at the claims of the toothpastes in your local Boots. Long gone is the Colgate ‘ring of confidence’, replaced by Oral B’s ‘3D White Luxe’ range, which includes ‘Perfection’, ‘Healthy Shine’, ‘Glamour Shine’ and ‘Brilliance’. The shelves are groaning with other whitening miracles: gels, strips, drops, polishes, even a floss that boasts of ‘extra whitening power with scrubbing micro-crystals that whitens between teeth’. Mr Cowell is vain, but he might draw the line at fussing over the colour scheme between his gnashers.

There’s a new Listerine mouthwash that claims to ‘whiten teeth in two weeks’, and my head was turned for a few seconds by a toothpaste called Rapid White with its ‘instant whitening system’.


It’s all big business, of course. We spend more than £100 million a year on whitening toothpastes in Britain. But it’s also a massive opportunity for dentists, many of whom have changed the name of their practices to reflect the obsession with bleached teeth.

My dentist in south London used to be called Preventive Dental Practice but is now ‘Smiles’. Near me at work there’s a ‘Smile Right’ and even a ‘Dental Spa’ that’s been ‘transforming smiles for over 40 years’. Whatever happened to plain old ‘fighting tooth decay’? The British Dental Association, naturally, is sniffy about over-the-counter remedies, while making sure that its members are up to speed with this money-spinner. In October, it’s organising a one-day seminar in Leeds called ‘Whiter than White’, which will explore the ‘latest trends for achieving predictable whitening to grow your business’. Non-members can attend for £275.

Things don’t always work out for the best in this bleaching racket. Get the hydrogen peroxide wrong and you end up with irreversible gum recession and painfully sensitive teeth — especially if you order the stuff over the internet. Some teeth kits contain chlorine dioxide, the same acid used to disinfect swimming pools. It achieves the whitening effect by etching the surface of the tooth. destroying the protective enamel.

The BDA makes clear that only trained dentists or hygienists working under the instructions of a qualified dentist are allowed to practise teeth whitening. And the legal limit in this country is a 6 per cent concentration of hydrogen peroxide. Conversely, by law, all DIY bleaching products — remedies bought over the counter, including toothpastes — are allowed concentrations of only 0.01 per cent hydrogen peroxide.

That means you would have to brush your teeth hundreds of times a day to notice any difference. And, even then, the staining will soon come back if you’re partial to a cup of tea or coffee. Or glass of red wine.

‘You might as well scoop up all those whitening products and throw them down the lavatory,’ says Morris Weinstein, a dentist friend of mine.

Yes, but there’s nothing like the promise of a quick fix. A bottle of Listerine’s ‘Arctic’ flavour ‘stay white’ mouthwash costs less than a fiver, whereas the Dental Spa in High Street Kensington charges £379 for a 90-minute bleaching session.

Those of us unwilling to join the whiter–than-white crowd shouldn’t feel we are underachieving in the looks department. We must just keep brushing our teeth twice a day — and grin and bear it.


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