The perfect smile. It is one of the most popular facial features that people desire. Those perfectly shaped, pearl-white teeth are irresistible to all, disarming even the most hostile individuals with their enrapturing appearance. Amaan Akhtar discusses our perception of our smiles and teeth, how important they have become to us, and the lengths we go to satisfy a perhaps unattainable form of perfection.
A smile signals an affectionate, inviting presence from their owner. A potential friend perhaps, or at least a pleasant stranger to strike up an amicable conversation with. Regardless of what we are doing during our daily lives, once we are hit by this gesture, we feel at ease and can alleviate some of the stresses of the world that exist all around us. A genuine smile highlights a sense of empathy and compassion that we all share as human beings.
A smile is especially potent during those nervous, awkward exchanges at social events: when it is carefully placed within pre-planned introductions designed to achieve an excellent impression over its target. Add the touch of a warm, lingering gaze with your gentle eyes and you have established a powerful combination in your social repertoire.
So, it is understandable why everyone ruminates on ways to improve their teeth. Everyone knows how beautiful a radiant, white smile can be on the eyes, which is why we are so self-conscious about our own. Think about your day - at some point, you will consciously think about the shade they appear, or whether there is a piece of food snuggled up somewhere between the cracks. We want our smile to appear at its best every time.
Unfortunately, a lot us also think too often about the shape and alignment of our own teeth. We find them unflattering; we perceive them as misshapen abnormalities, that either are jagged, protruding in the wrong places, or not correctly proportioned with one another. While not much can be done to remedy this situation, we are fortunate to have excellent dental practises that can at least fix and re-align them with the use of braces, retainers and various other dental equipment.
However, when it comes to whitening our teeth, that is an entirely different story. If we are not content with their natural colour, there are various things we can do to give ourselves a dazzling smile. When you scour the internet on ways to improve your teeth’s discoloured shade to a whiter sheen, you'll find endless resources that claim to be the perfect solution for your troubles.
Aside from the most common bleaching methods, using either peroxide gels or laser “powder-whitening” prescribed by dental professionals; there are also a myriad of homemade remedies including (but not limited to) the unique uses of bicarbonate soda, coconut oil, and charcoal brushing. There are even teeth whitening home kits that can be purchased online to use at our discretion - although these are not cost-effective, as they don't contain enough whitening product to provide amazing results.
Whilst DIY techniques are cheaper than the visit to the dentist, and are far more appealing for their convenience, these methods can only change your teeth by a shade or two. They cannot guarantee us the promise of pearlly-whites that we originally hoped for. Additionally, all whitening treatments only have a temporary effect, lasting a mere several months, or a few years (if you opt for the expensive, dental professional route). These whitening effects always regress, especially after bleaching treatment, because the protective layer on the teeth (pellicle) which usually forms everyday is completely removed for at least 24 hours - compromising the teeth’s surface so they are extra vulnerable to staining.
Nevertheless, we are still willing to go through all this effort because we are subjected to successful cases for teeth whitening in the media. The fortunate ones can obtain the correct shade they always desired after a couple of attempts, and others are happy to persevere with several treatments over months and years to achieve their desired look. Little do we realise, that our neurotic fixation on achieving a perfect, white set of teeth has gradually transformed into a form of "body dysmorphic disorder", where this aspect of body perfection has led to many people undergoing an alarming number of whitening treatments during a year.
Unfortunately, many of these techniques are abrasive on the teeth, and when we use them frequently, they can do more harm to us than good. When we use teeth whitening treatments, we are wearing our teeth down and causing them to age and decay faster.
Depending on the type of method used, they work by fixing the intrinsic and/or extrinsic appearance (i.e. everyday staining) of teeth. Over time, our teeth naturally appear discoloured because the internal portion of teeth (dentin) darkens during the ageing process. Additionally, the external surface (enamel) becomes thinner from general use - which can be exacerbated further by teeth grinding & consuming acidic foods frequently. As the enamel wears down, it becomes transparent and the dentin underneath starts to reflect through the teeth like a prism.
To counteract this ageing effect, these extrinsic methods produce the white sheen on teeth by breaking down upper enamel layers that have been stained a yellow hue: revealing deeper layers of fresh enamel that are naturally white. However, this weakens the strength of the teeth, making them brittle and more prone to breakage. And if the enamel surface becomes extremely thin, it will inevitably reflect more of the yellow hue produced by dentin underneath.
In contrast to this, peroxide gels and laser whitening focus on changing the internal appearance by staining dentin a lighter shade. However, this type of treatment can also be very risky. For instance, bleaching treatment is associated with increased tooth sensitivity and gum irritation. And although this may disappear after a couple weeks, excessive bleaching will exacerbate these symptoms and can lead to further complications such as damage to roots of teeth, uneven whiteness and bluish enamel. Thankfully, all these side effects are reversible when you stop overusing these methods.
So, after knowing all this, is there a safe way to achieve that perfect smile?
The truth is, there unfortunately isn't. The body is designed to age and decay over time; and that includes every aspect of it. Teeth will inevitably start to discolour and whittle down as we grow older. If we continue to treat them awfully with treatments focused solely on appearance, then their lifespan will be a lot shorter than we hoped. This is especially highlighted by dentists to those dealing with real dental issues, as they can suffer irreversible damage.
That doesn't mean we cannot maintain our teeth’s healthy state for a long time. When it comes to our body, we need to start prioritizing health and function over aesthetics.
When we maintain our health and wellbeing over the years, the physical state of any aspect of our bodies can become naturally durable, vibrant and younger over many decades. Although it is not promising that we cannot rely on instant gratification to fix our perceived physical issues, instead through meticulous care and effort, we will certainly have a healthier smile that will last us a lifetime.