The emphasis on personal appearance has become the focus of many technological advances in the past five to 10 years, including our current preoccupation with teeth.
Straighter, whiter and brighter are three of the leading attributes millions have sought through various remedies, from invisible braces to whitening mouth washes.
"The whole whitening thing is all about cosmetic issues and self-confidence," said Naperville dentist Paul Caputo. "I see it as part of the whole 'makeover' thing today that ranges from hair dyes to Botox. People are concerned about the way they look."
Caputo said consumers are likely to get the best results from products available through dental offices, such as an in-office procedure using a carbamide peroxide bleaching solution and light or take-home custom-made trays that also use a bleaching solution.
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Tooth-whitening services are among the most frequently requested cosmetic dentistry procedures, according to a 2004 survey by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.
Danielle Gardner/ Staff photographer
From a business standpoint, there is little doubt the paradigm has shifted.
Eric Nelson, spokesman for the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, based in Madison, Wis., said tooth-whitening services are the most requested and performed procedure in cosmetic dentistry.
In a 2004 survey of 768 dentists, the association found that 29 percent said tooth whitening was the most popular service.
Even dentists whose practice doesn't focus strictly on cosmetic procedures are seeing a shift.
Naperville dentist Tom Brown said the number of cosmetic dentistry procedures he performs has increased from about 10 percent of his patients just six years ago to more than double that today.
"It's all about cosmetic today," Brown said. "Every one of my patients that leaves here wants to be 'white' - from the fillings they get to the brightness of their teeth. Gold is really the best material for fillings, but no one wants it anymore. There are no 'dark tooth' people today."
Brown said the majority of his work continues to be what people think of as more typical dentistry but that the majority of professional journals are filled with stories about cosmetic cases.
"Everyone is looking for that big client, but the fact is, there are not that many cosmetic cases that someone makes $25,000 for veneers or something," he said. "The whole age spectrum is affected - 10-year-olds come in here looking for whitening, which is why dentists across the country are seeing an increase in that type of business."
The cosmetic dentistry association's 2004 survey indicated that patients spend about $455 a year on cosmetic dentistry.
Professional whitening procedures, whether in the office or with take-home trays, can cost anywhere from $300 to $800, Caputo said, which is why many folks opt for over-the-counter remedies. While most products are available for $30 and less, many don't work or offer limited benefits.
But for the budget-conscious, Dr. Kevin Ryan of Naperville said many of his patients have been successful with the whitening strips, which might be a good way to start.
"I offer my patients various levels of whitening procedures, and we have prescribed the strips for many, who have had good success," Ryan said. "There are professional as well as consumer grades of strips, meaning people can't buy the strongest grade at their pharmacy."