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The Tooth Whitening Craze

I was chatting with an acquaintance when I noticed something different about him. Was it a new hairstyle? Had he dropped a few pounds? I couldn't place it.

He was in mid-chuckle when I realized what it was. His teeth. They were whiter than an Irish guy's legs in summer. That is, they had an eerie glow. It was unsettling.

"What have you done to yourself?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Your teeth. They're so bright."

He flashed a 500-watt grin. I squinted. The glare.

"I had them whitened," he said

"But your teeth always seemed fine to me," by which I meant they were normal, by which I meant I had never noticed his teeth before. They were just, well, teeth.

He gave me several reasons why he had paid a dentist hundreds of dollars to have his teeth whitened, mostly that he is in sales and he must have an "edge" over competitors.

A weird, phosphorous grin apparently will help him make more money. Sure.

("Boss, here are my sales numbers before I whitened, and here they are after. Look at the spike. We must get the sales force to the nearest dentist, quick!")

A stroll through any pharmacy shows we're up to our bicuspids in a tooth-whitening craze.

Tooth-care products stretch some 20 feet in Walgreen's, including 21 brands of toothpaste, most with whitening agents. There are whitening gels, strips, trays, wands, pens and swabs. Rembrandt even has toothpaste for folks with canker sores that has whitener added.

("Baby, your cankers are gross - but your dazzling choppers cancel them out. Kiss me!")

Dr. Don E. Millner, who has a cosmetic dentistry practice in Yardley, told me whiteners have lifted the standard for tooth color.

"Yellow teeth make you look older. Unhealthy. It's just not accepted anymore. How people want their teeth to look has changed dramatically in the last 10 years," he said. A decade ago, a few clients asked for tooth whitening. Today, Millner estimates 10 percent of his practice is dedicated to it.

"So many people are whitening their teeth that I can see a time where, if you don't whiten, you will look abnormal," he said. "It's like if you still smoke cigarettes or if you don't buckle up [your seat belt] when you drive. It's considered odd. People begin to think something's wrong with the way you live your life."

It used to be that a dentist performing cosmetic work would match caps to a normal shade of tooth color, which, in a typical adult, is faintly yellow.

"Nobody wants those colors anymore," Millner said. "Today we work off what we call 'bleaching' shade guides."

For some, the bleachier the better.

Procter & Gamble might have sparked the tooth-whitening phenomenon in 2001 when it launched Crest Whitestrips (now called "Crest Whitestrips Classic" since there have been improvements to the line).

P&G spokeswoman Tanya Elrod said the public's pursuit of whiter teeth has helped make the corporation's oral-care division a billion-dollar business.

"We have a mantra at Procter & Gamble: 'The consumer is boss.' Our consumers told us they were not only interested in healthy smiles, but they also wanted beautiful smiles," she said.

Beautiful smiles are fetching, for sure. But people with ultra whitey-whites look weird to me, since the overemphasis gives the impression of having horse teeth.

Who would have thought that looking like Mr. Ed would become a fashion statement?

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