Would you prefer useless or expensive? The truth about tooth-whitening

Dentists will tell you cheerfully – and accurately – how little over-the-counter products do. But they’re keen to get in on the business

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

Ruby Wax makes the point (repeatedly but it still gets a laugh) that the British discovered the practice of brushing their teeth in the 1980s. I dare say our dental hygiene is the butt of more jokes throughout North America, where wearing a brace is something of a fashion statement.

But something strange is happening on our side of the pond. This struck me — in fact, almost blinded me — a couple of weeks ago when a hotel manager introduced himself at a central London gathering and dazzled me. His teeth were super-white. They were super-straight, too, but it was the brilliance that startled me. It was as if someone had told the poor fellow to open wide and poured a pot of Dulux gloss into his mouth.

I couldn’t take him seriously. He might just as well have worn a badge saying ‘Sleazy Salesman.’ In fact, I’m ashamed to say that the whiter someone’s teeth are the less I trust him — or her for that matter. Perhaps that’s why Simon Cowell and his X Factor crowd come across as such phonies, their flashy teeth reflecting their flashy lives.

It’s a growing phenomenon. Just look at the claims of the toothpastes in your local Boots. Long gone is the Colgate ‘ring of confidence’, replaced by Oral B’s ‘3D White Luxe’ range, which includes ‘Perfection’, ‘Healthy Shine’, ‘Glamour Shine’ and ‘Brilliance’. The shelves are groaning with other whitening miracles: gels, strips, drops, polishes, even a floss that boasts of ‘extra whitening power with scrubbing micro-crystals that whitens between teeth’. Mr Cowell is vain, but he might draw the line at fussing over the colour scheme between his gnashers.

There’s a new Listerine mouthwash that claims to ‘whiten teeth in two weeks’, and my head was turned for a few seconds by a toothpaste called Rapid White with its ‘instant whitening system’.

It’s all big business, of course. We spend more than £100 million a year on whitening toothpastes in Britain. But it’s also a massive opportunity for dentists, many of whom have changed the name of their practices to reflect the obsession with bleached teeth.

My dentist in south London used to be called Preventive Dental Practice but is now ‘Smiles’. Near me at work there’s a ‘Smile Right’ and even a ‘Dental Spa’ that’s been ‘transforming smiles for over 40 years’. Whatever happened to plain old ‘fighting tooth decay’? The British Dental Association, naturally, is sniffy about over-the-counter remedies, while making sure that its members are up to speed with this money-spinner. In October, it’s organising a one-day seminar in Leeds called ‘Whiter than White’, which will explore the ‘latest trends for achieving predictable whitening to grow your business’. Non-members can attend for £275.

Things don’t always work out for the best in this bleaching racket. Get the hydrogen peroxide wrong and you end up with irreversible gum recession and painfully sensitive teeth — especially if you order the stuff over the internet. Some teeth kits contain chlorine dioxide, the same acid used to disinfect swimming pools. It achieves the whitening effect by etching the surface of the tooth. destroying the protective enamel.

The BDA makes clear that only trained dentists or hygienists working under the instructions of a qualified dentist are allowed to practise teeth whitening. And the legal limit in this country is a 6 per cent concentration of hydrogen peroxide. Conversely, by law, all DIY bleaching products — remedies bought over the counter, including toothpastes — are allowed concentrations of only 0.01 per cent hydrogen peroxide.

That means you would have to brush your teeth hundreds of times a day to notice any difference. And, even then, the staining will soon come back if you’re partial to a cup of tea or coffee. Or glass of red wine.

‘You might as well scoop up all those whitening products and throw them down the lavatory,’ says Morris Weinstein, a dentist friend of mine.

Yes, but there’s nothing like the promise of a quick fix. A bottle of Listerine’s ‘Arctic’ flavour ‘stay white’ mouthwash costs less than a fiver, whereas the Dental Spa in High Street Kensington charges £379 for a 90-minute bleaching session.

Those of us unwilling to join the whiter–than-white crowd shouldn’t feel we are underachieving in the looks department. We must just keep brushing our teeth twice a day — and grin and bear it.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • davidshort10

    Hardly the subject matter of a serious magazine like the Spectator even though its md had his done for the telly, but the process only serves to draw more attention to his ugly features and badly-dyed hair. We can only be thankful he is only on when we are either at work or in bed.

    • agdpa

      I was interested to read something truthful on this subject from a trustworthy source

      • Maxwell Frere

        So was I. I was curious to find out if a tea drinking pipe smoker, such as myself, who almost invariably ends the day with a bottle of rioja could hope for teeth of a paler colour than that of mahogany. Apparently not.

        • john181352

          Ah, but the life is good, even if the teeth not so

  • Cyril Sneer

    I’ve been using a teeth whitener I bought from Amazon (it only cost about £3) for about a week now and I can see a noticeable improvement since using it.

    • Zanderz

      Teeth do look white as they dissolve. Be careful.

      • Callipygian


      • Cyril Sneer

        I think I’ll be fine.

    • Damaris Tighe

      Brand? Could do with some glittering molars.

      • Cyril Sneer

        I’ll have to check later. I just go by the user reviews on Amazon.

        • Damaris Tighe


    • Callipygian

      Lemme guess. Crest 3-D whitener strips and/or Glamour rinse.

      Poor old Brits. So beaten down by the state.

      • Cyril Sneer

        No it’s a whitening pen and it is possible to order products from abroad you know.

        • Callipygian

          Not sure I’d ever use a whitening pen. My understanding from a previous quick Google is that you’re literally sort of painting your teeth. It’s temporary and perhaps not that healthy. I prefer at-root solutions, myself — and ones that aim for underlying health rather than mere sham cosmetics.

  • alberto

    Think Hughie Green

    • 100

      I thought he was responsible for STD’s with his old clapometer

  • paulthorgan

    This is exacerbated when advertisers use computer effects in the adverts for whitening products.

  • Callipygian

    Speaking as someone that grew up in Canada, wearing a brace is certainly NOT a fashion statement. I don’t know how you manage to get your teeth in such bad shape. Not drinking water with fluoride in it? You lot are paranoid about that, aren’t you? But look at your teeth! David Attenborough was a handsome man until he smiled.

    My teeth are lovely, but I was educated about proper hygiene while young and I spared no expense in preserving them (WITHOUT orthodontics). That’s the catch — ALWAYS — in the difference between Brits and North Americans (especially Americans, of whom I am now one). We have the money and the technology: you may have the technology, but many of your people can’t afford it, and that’s because you over-tax them in the service of socialism.

    Socialism famously makes everyone uglier — inside and out.

    • Mc

      While I agree with your main point, I believe you’re mistaken in your understanding that the UK is more socialist than the US. The US government hands out similarly massive, unsustainable amounts of benefits as the UK. The only real difference is that the US packages it benefits slightly differently to the UK by, for example, not having a close equivalent to the NHS. US citizens also like to believe that their government is not socialist.

      For example, this pie chart shows that around 2/3 of US budget goes toward handouts (social security, Medicare, veterans benefits)

      This UK pie chart looks very similar to the US one in terms of handouts http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/142/economics/what-does-the-government-spend-its-money-on/

      • Callipygian

        Not all socialism is a matter of spending. It’s also statism, paternalism, and regulation, of which the UK has more. We are freer here — to defend our safety, to not recycle, to recycle how we like, to use phones in a car, to keep more money from our paychecks and spend it how we like, and to choose our leaders in government — just for a few examples.

        • Mc

          Certainly a higher proportion of Americans appear to be more skeptical than Europeans about the idea that government interference is a good thing. However I’d need more specifics on your claim that US citizens can “keep more money from our paychecks and spend it how we like”. My understanding is that the average American pays about the same tax as most Europeans. But perhaps the US purchasing power is greater.

          • Callipygian

            Tax varies but we are far less often taxed, and at lower rates. And yes, the cost of living is lower as well.

          • Mc

            Getting back to one of your original points about poor dental hygiene, repeated surveys suggest that all round hygiene is not a British strong point. Traveling on UK public transport bears this out: trains, buses and passengers smell like unwashed clothes and bodily evacuations.


          • Perhaps, living in the Statist Paradise of ex-Britannic Warmed-Over Socialism, they’re trying to save on suds.

          • Mc

            My understanding is they’ve always been like that, even prior to socialism.

    • El_Sid

      I don’t know how you manage to get your teeth in such bad shape.

      How about looking at the actual facts – this whole thing about British teeth being so much worse than North Americans is baloney. Note the conclusions of http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h6543

      “The oral health of US citizens is not better than the English, and there
      are consistently wider educational and income oral health inequalities
      in the US compared with England.”

      In particular, poor people in the US have worse teeth than poor people in the UK – a socialist health system improves the teeth of the poor more than it impoverishes them.

      They don’t go into much detail, but there is a hint in the data that the middle classes in the UK just care less about having shiny fangs, it’s not a question of money. It’s almost like they think the most important thing to nurture in their skull is their brain, not their teeth.

      • Callipygian

        I don’t see it as either/or. People that let their bodies decline quite often decline all over. I do mind-body fitness so I understand the connection. I take care of my brain AND my teeth!

        • ThatOneChap

          So do we. In fact, we take BETTER care of our teeth than Canada and the US. We just don’t pretend that artificially bleaching them to be whiter than natural indicates good dental hygiene. Blaming British teeth (which are healthier than North American Teeth) on Socialism makes very little sense. You’ve obviously come here with an axe to grind. I agree with much of what you’re saying regarding taxation and general interference by government but trying to make this argument regarding teeth doesn’t work at all. British teeth are healthier and better than North American teeth by pretty much every metric aside from ‘North American Dental Aesthetics’.

          • Callipygian

            Thank you, Vlad Putin, for the propaganda. We don’t buy it. Love, the Osmonds.

          • Callipygian

            Obviously I touched a nerve. I don’t have an axe to grind: I was simply commenting like everyone else. Keep your hair on, mate.

  • Mc

    A good general rule is that most cosmetic procedures are a waste of money and often make one look like a grotesque, chavish freak (not something that is apparent to buyers)

  • Vinnie

    As a Brit living in Canada and who has been to the dentist here, back home again and here again let me tell you – the British dentist told me to not worry about my missing tooth “you can’t see it why are you bothered by it?” to which I replied “yes but I need to chew my food!”

    yes the North American dentists can force you into work that you don’t need doing but by and large, my experience is the standards are just higher. They just care more about their teeth, if there is something that needs fixing they get it done whereas the Brits question whether it really needs doing or if it’s cosmetic. Or they’ll wait until it’s a problem then it’s too late.

    It could be the fluoride but myself and many people filter the water.

    • DennisHorne

      Generally, in the long term, you do more harm than good replacing teeth. It’s not like for like: putting a new engine in a car.