TEXT OF STORY
BOB MOON: Can you imagine how much better life might have been for George Washington with just a few whitening strips? When you think about it, some successful innovations are not technological, they’re psychological, someone figures out how to make us want something we didn’t care about before. A few years back, a survey by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry found that 99 percent of us believe a smile is “an important social asset.” The rest just frown a lot.
Ashley Milne-Tyte took a look at why more people have literally been putting their money where their mouth is.
DENTAL HYGIENIST: And we have a choice of twelve different flavors, but I’m choosing this for you because it’s the grittiest, OK, and I want to get that stain out — bubble gum, pina colada, orange, tropical, good old-fashioned mint.
ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Inside an elegant brown store on Manhattan’s upper East Side businesswoman Jane Ubell lies back in a deep leather chair. She watches a TV that hangs above her head while dental hygienist, Vickie Blasloff, flosses and polishes her teeth. Ubell comes to the New York Center for Cosmetic Dentistry four times a year for, what’s known in the office as a “floss and gloss.”
JANE UBELL: It’s always a treat when somebody else flosses you. I feel completely pampered when somebody else is doing this work.
The half-hour procedure is billed as a spa treatment, though it amounts to an extra cleaning. Ubell, whose mother endured years of painful gum disease, says it’s worth every cent.
JANE UBELL: This is a necessity. I have to tell you. It’s like any part of a healthy regime. Plaque and stress and gingivitis and all the periodontal disease, I need to make sure that I don’t get that.
Ubell has also had her teeth bleached here. Dentist Jeff Golub-Evans directs the center. He thinks the public’s passion for bleaching is mostly media-driven, but he adds, American’s desire for whiter teeth stretches back beyond the era of television or even movies. In 1888, he says, one Philadelphia dentist had a bright idea.
JEFF GOLUB-EVANS: There was a dentist who figured out that if he took peroxide and put it on people’s teeth, and then heated it with a poker from a fireplace, near your mouth, I admit this is unwieldy, that your teeth would turn white, and there were people who showed up at that dental office, so maybe, you know maybe it’s in Americans’ genes, because we have been whitening teeth in this country for 150 years.
Golub-Evans’ pies de resistance is decidedly less dangerous. He calls it a “smile makeover,” where he transforms misshapen teeth using bonding material or veneers.
GOLUB-EVANS: A good smile, like good eyeglasses, actually can maximize your positive features and minimize the negative features.
In the Chicago suburb of Northfield, dentist Jeff Beutell proudly polishes a freshly-made porcelain veneer.
JEFF BEUTTELL: On the surface we make sure that there’s no little pits or irregularities in the surface.
Beuttell says strides in technology have brought the public big benefits, like the machine that designed and produced this custom-made veneer in 20 minutes. Cosmetic procedures are so advanced, he says, that nowadays a restored tooth can look entirely real. As for dental spas, he thinks they’re a fad.
BEUTTELL: I’m a meat and potatoes type of dentist. I think, a dental spa, to me, in some respects is putting on airs.
He says he considered branching into spa territory, but concluded he was giving his patients excellent plain vanilla dentistry as it was. He says the public reads up on dental trends, and its growing familiarity with cosmetic procedures has forced dentists everywhere to snap to attention. But have they raised prices to capitalize on the demand?
BEUTTELL: If the dentists are busy, and their schedules are full, they probably are less reluctant to raise their fees, so in that respect I would say probably the fees have gone up some, but I don’t think they’ve gone up disproportionately.
Beuttell revels in the brave new world of cosmetic dentistry.
BEUTTELL: It’s a fun time to be a dentist.
If you ask Mike Roach, it’s not a bad time to be a patient either. Roach is a regular at the New York Center for Cosmetic Dentistry. As a musician’s tour manager, he spends a lot of time liaising between the artist he’s working for and the club where they’re performing. He’ll gladly pay for treatments such as bleaching or a floss and gloss, he says, because appearances matter.
MIKE ROACH: As with any job, people talk behind people’s back, I suppose, and you get to hear things like, oh did you see his teeth? If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of someone else.
Roach says his gleaming teeth are a testament to how seriously he takes his job.
In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.
We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.
Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.
In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.
Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.