Our Obsession With a Pearly Smile: Why Has Teeth Whitening Become so Popular?

The teeth whitening industry is booming, despite the profound and unprecedented hardships that we’ve faced in 2020. Despite the arrival of global lockdowns and social distancing measures leaving many of us indoors working from home or socialising remotely, the global teeth whitening market has been forecasted a rise of over $840 million in incremental growth since the end of 2019. 

(Image: Business Wire)

According to the chart above, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has enabled a year of growth within the global teeth whitening market without any evidence of hindrance brought on by the arrival of global recessions and operational difficulties for clinics. 

In fact, despite all the new and unusual challenges facing the industry, the market is actually expected to accelerate at a CAGR of nearly 4% – showing that the market is heading for an impressive increase in size compared to the year prior. 

COVID-19 has brought with it a significant level of turmoil across the world, from the tragic humanitarian costs of the pandemic to the widespread economic hardships that billions will soon have to confront. So why, in the midst of a global crisis, are we so obsessed with making sure our teeth are white? Let’s take a look at how we became a planet obsessed with a pearly smile:

Evolutionary Secrets

Our pursuit of perfectly white teeth is nothing new, unsurprisingly. In fact, it’s an obsession that’s as old as time, according to a 2016 study published in Evolution and Human Behaviour

The study suggests that our ideas around sexual attraction are linked to visual indicators that are linked to our health and ability to produce healthy offspring. This ‘invisible radar’ enables humans to make instant assessments based on the suitability of a mate. For instance, the study argues, women with petite jawbones are seen as beautiful because it is perceived to reflect higher levels of female hormones and thus higher fertility. 

When it comes to teeth, our evolutionary radars are primed to associate poor dental appearances with oral health issues like anaemia, kidney disease, diabetes and dry-mouth among others. 

Stained or yellowing teeth can point to a number of health issues like digestive disorders, childhood fever or antibiotic use. Discoloured teeth is also typically a byproduct of the ageing process. Speaking to Stuff, Edmond Hewlett, professor of restorative dentistry at UCLA, explained: “Just as white, straight teeth convey youth, a smile with crooked, discoloured, worn, or missing teeth is associated with an aged look.”

Evolutionarily speaking, our ambitions to possess whiter teeth come from a desire to improve our appearance on a more instinctual level – and that our urge to artificially enhance the colour of our teeth actually represents an eagerness to appear healthier and more youthful. 

However, it appears that we can have too much of a good thing when it comes to cosmetic dentistry. According to one study, teeth have to continue to appear naturally white in order to have their desired effect. If a look appears to be unnatural, it’s less likely to be seen as appealing. 

Speaking of his findings in the aforementioned study, Dr Nikolaus Troje said: “We found that attractiveness depends on internal consistency. Our visual system is a sensitive lie detector that perceives even the slightest inconsistencies and responds negatively to them.”

Accelerating Interest in The Age of Remote Collaboration

It seems counterintuitive that we would actively care more about the colour of our teeth in the age of COVID-19 and the subsequent global lockdowns and self-isolation measures that have come with the pandemic. But despite this, interest is reportedly increasing across the board. 

Thanks to the ‘Zoom Boom’, the rise in popularity of the video conferencing and social app that allows friends, family and colleagues alike to connect with each other to work or play remotely without having to fear spreading the virus, we’re having to confront our own negative perceptions of our bodies more often – according to a leading cosmetic surgeon. 

As lockdowns begin to affect people in various countries across the world during the spring of 2020, Gerard Lambe, spokesperson for the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) realised that the volume of requests arriving for online consultations at his Reflect Clinic in Manchester had increased by three times their original number. 

Acknowledging the surge in enquiries, Lambe noted: “The ‘Zoom factor’, with people using cameras more than ever and their visual appearance being scrutinised on apps, has certainly boosted enquiries for cosmetic tweaks and procedures. Many people are also aware they are likely to be working from home long-term and want to now start planning their dream procedures”.

(Image: Statista)

There may be some solid logic behind Lambe’s hypothesis. Towards the beginning of April 2020, a time when the COVID-19 crisis had truly begun to take hold across Europe and the United States, the four most downloaded apps on Apple and Android stores were all video-based collaboration and social applications

Where users were previously used to spending their time briefly working on their image for a few minutes before leaving the house in the morning before work, they’re now having to stay home and frequently use apps that typically feature a perpetual mirror-image staring back at them while they interact with colleagues, friends and family. 

Concurring with the idea that apps may be causing us to become more obsessed with our image in lockdown, cosmetic doctor Tijion Esho stated that “any platform which makes us more visually aware has always had an effect on drive for procedures.”

More Time for Self-Reflection

It seems that there are many contributing factors that have entered into the mix for when it comes to our increasing obsession with teeth whitening. 

“I had never taken a selfie before lockdown,” writes Olivia Petter in The Independent. “Now there are 177 of them on my phone.”

Petter is one of many workers who have taken to lockdown with a mounting level of awareness of her own image. In her article, she noted that she’d ‘never been so insecure’ since she started working from home. 

Despite isolation measures leading to more of us finding it difficult to socialise or find ourselves in scenarios where we’re communicating face-to-face with people, it’s becoming clear that our heavy downtime has led to many of us thinking about our image more than ever. 

Isolation has led to many of us looking beyond fixes like teeth whitening – with our facial features and weight coming into more consideration too. Petter states that she’s found herself “thinking about my body. Is my face getting rounder; my belly softer?”

Petter’s article concludes that her body consciousness comes from an unsurprising source considering her levels of exposure to constant images and video feeds of herself in lockdown: “Think about it,” she concludes, “we are all spending more time looking at ourselves. Whether it’s a Zoom meeting with colleagues, a virtual date, or your umpteenth House Party quiz, video calling is now the norm. And so every perceived flaw is amplified because it’s quite literally staring at us in the face.”

(Image: University of Cambridge)

Corroborating with the theory of loneliness, we can see University of Cambridge findings that show UK loneliness us up three-fold within women and almost the same ratio in men in the space of two weeks between mid-march and the arrival of nationwide lockdowns leading into April. 

According to mental health charity, Mind, loneliness in people can lead to body dysmorphia being triggered along with negative perceptions of themselves where there was no evidence of such negative mindsets before. 

Digital Distortions

While the pandemic has accelerated the growth of the teeth whitening industry, it certainly couldn’t be recognised as in decline in the months prior. Treehugger places the reason behind this firmly on the ever-increasing expectations that we put upon ourselves after viewing photoshopped images. 

The article notes that dental offices up and down the US, dentists are struggling to keep up with the demand for brighter, whiter teeth – with many patients arriving with unrealistic expectations of how white their teeth can become. 

The blame, according to the 2019 article, can be left at the door of the advertising industry for relentlessly photoshopping teeth and turning them into crystal clear, snow white specimens. Additionally, the finger can be pointed towards the world of entertainment for championing the use of porcelain veneers among actors and actresses. There’s also plenty of blame that can be handed to dental companies too – who continually promise brighter whiter smiles to the point where people genuinely believe that flawless teeth are only a few steps away from becoming a reality. 

However, these snowballing expectations can be costly for the industry. According to dentists like Ronald Perry, director of the Gavel Center for Restorative Research at Tufts University, not only is it possible for many of us to achieve the level of white that the teeth in magazines seem to portray but our constant exposure to images of perfection are changing our very perception of what white teeth look like: “What was once considered natural white is now yellow to people,” Perry explained. “Sometimes there’s really not a shade I can pick that’s white enough.”

Technology to Accommodate Change

Perry’s reference to picking a shade directly relates to the VITA Classical Shade Guide – a tool that dentists use for colour matching and consulting with patients over their desired results. 

(Image: Treehugger)

This demand for ‘perfection’ can leave many patients with little choice other than to buy into expensive veneers, where teeth can appear porcelain white by shells effectively being positioned in front of existing teeth. 

However, there are plenty of options available for patients who aren’t as willing to go to extremes to attain an artificially white appearance in their smile. With cost-effective and high-performance Crest 3D Whitestrips, it’s possible for image-conscious users to see results in as little as three days – all without the need for surgery or other invasive procedures. 

Other effective alternatives such as activated charcoal gels and home whitening kits can really help people to address their newfound determination for whiter teeth without having to resort to extreme measures. In a landscape that’s been changed forever by COVID-19, responsible teeth whitening measures can help millions to address their insecurities without the threat of spending vast amounts of money or risking damage to their teeth.

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