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They blinded me with whiteness

Why the obsession with teeth brightening has gone beyond the pale

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / July 2, 2008

During the course of a week, it became clear to me just how much the world has changed for the whiter.

Watching the first season of "The Love Boat" on DVD, I noticed something curious about Lauren Tewes, the actress who played perky cruise director Julie McCoy. When she smiled warmly, what she revealed wasn't a row of pearly whites, but something that resembled corn on the cob. Pale yellow niblets that matched the color of her sandy blond hair appeared where her teeth should have been, and I immediately thought of salt and butter. In hindsight this makes sense. The Pacific Princess had a doctor and a bartender, but no dentist.

That was the standard in 1977 - along with flared poly-blend pantsuits and gauchos. But in 2008, seven years after the roll out of Crest Whitestrips and nearly 20 after the introduction of tray whitening systems, the standard has changed. Teeth are now preternaturally, blindingly white. Everyone, it seems, from actors on the big screen to the 19-year-old barista with the dazzling grin is fueling the $1 billion-plus-a-year whitening industry. According to the American Dental Association, whitening is now the most requested procedure at a dentist's office. These days, in some circles, it's not a question of whether your teeth have been whitened, but by how much.

"In the early days of whitening, we didn't take [teeth] that white, but now that everyone's doing it, it's a bit of keeping up with the Joneses," explains Dr. Marty Zase, a Connecticut dentist and past president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. "People see their friends or co-workers with white teeth, and they want theirs to be even whiter. It's something that everyone is doing. I don't see an end to it."

I didn't need Dr. Zase to tell me this. The day after my trip on "The Love Boat," I was having a fizzy Newbury Street cocktail with a very chic acquaintance. When my fashionable friend flashed her ivories, it was as if she had turned on a florescent light bulb. Her teeth are a shade of white not even found in the Arctic. I had to fight the urge to stare in amazement.

I was too polite to say it to her face, but I'm not too polite to say it in print. Teeth should resemble a color found in nature, not the xenon headlights that blind me in my rearview mirror as I drive. I'm nostalgic for the days when a television anchor could look like she smoked two packs of Kools a day and still get a job outside of Schenectady. This super whitening is like Botox for teeth: It's obvious you've had work done.

"I'm addicted," 33-year-old Back Bay resident Patricia Farmer confessed to me over cocktails at 28 Degrees. "I started with Whitestrips, moved on to gels, mouthwashes, and then started getting it professionally done. Everyone notices your teeth and people always tell me that my teeth are very white."

She's not kidding. Calling Farmer's teeth a little white is like calling Kanye West a little self-involved. She falls into the category that Dr. Zase describes as "people who aren't happy until their teeth look like a porcelain toilet bowl." The rule of thumb for whitening is that a person's teeth should be no brighter than the whites of their eyes, according to Zase. That way the focus stays on the eyes, not on the mouth. But rules are made to be broken.

"You see these commercials on TV where they show this blinding white sparkle and all you see are teeth," says Ginger Burr of Total Image Consultants. "Although that's what we see in Hollywood, that's not the goal. Your teeth shouldn't be the main focal point. It's like women who wear too much lipstick. You don't want lips to enter the room before you do, and you don't want your teeth to enter the room before you do."

Leslie Faust, the CEO of GoSmile, a Michigan-based company that makes high-end teeth whitening products, says the majority of its customers don't ask for teeth that look naturally white, they want teeth that are as white as possible.

"These days there's almost no such thing as too white," Faust says. "It's just like, can you have too few wrinkles? People look at teeth whitening the same way. It's a way to keep your mouth looking young."

The demand for extra bright teeth is the reason BriteSmile, a teeth whitening spa with 16 locations around the country, including one in Boston, does brisk business despite the $600 price tag (there's usually a special where the service can be purchased for $400). An hourlong treatment, and teeth drop several shades on the Vita Shade Guide, the chart dentists use to assess the color of tooth enamel. At BriteSmile, some customers have asked to make their teeth brighter than the whitest hue on the 16-shade Vita chart.

"A lot of people will get as white as they can with Whitestrips, and then they'll come to us," says Dr. Sherry Padgett of BriteSmile.

And it's not just singles and corporate mucky-mucks whitening up for the big date or meeting. Padgett says BriteSmile's customers run from teens to adults, and the slowing economy has not slowed demand for services. A growing number of people who are whitening are grandparents.

"They'll say that their grandchildren told them that their teeth look like corn," Padgett says.

If I encountered an ungrateful little brat who told me I had corn teeth, I'd promptly tell her that Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy had been in an unfortunate helicopter accident, and that there would be no more gifts on major holidays. Ever. And then I'd spend that gift money on getting my teeth whitened.

Strangely, I noticed that there seems to be a code of silence among people who whiten their teeth. When I polled my friends about whitening, no one wanted to confess. I got the same response when I called local news stations, the hotbeds of high-definition whiteness. Do these individuals expect me to naively believe that they were naturally blessed with those Clorox teeth?

There are few dangers involved in whitening healthy teeth - the biggest problems are sensitivity and the occasional blue-ish tint. Surprisingly, there are benefits to the heightened level of whitening. Well, kind of. According to Dr. Matthew Messina, consumer adviser of the American Dental Association, people who whiten their teeth are more inclined to take better care of them.

"Someone who likes their smile is more inclined to brush, floss, and see their dentist on a regular basis," he says. "It's like when you have a car you want to show off, you're more likely to take better care of it."

The man who is responsible for much of the current whitening craze, Dr. Robert Gerlach, manager of worldwide clinical trials at Procter & Gamble, also sees a benefit to the country's current whiteness obsession. Gerlach, who has done more research on teeth whitening than anyone else in the world and holds patents for Crest Whitestrips, along with other whitening products, says he's most proud that the current craze has had a huge social impact.

"Tooth whitening is now available to everybody," he says. "You don't have to be wealthy or well- connected to get your teeth whitened anymore, and that's not the case in other countries. Americans now have white teeth across the board."

I'm all for Dr. Gerlach's teeth-whitening-as-agent-of-social-change theory, I just wish that social change wasn't the same color as a Pep-O-Mint Life Savers.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

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