The other night, I inadvertently stumbled onto The Golden Bachelor, which popped into my eye (like a piece of grit) when I opened my Hulu account. Without getting into the reasons I found the show cringeworthy — okay, wait, I do want to mention something. I love bawdy, even old-people bawdy. But when one contestant told the bronzed Bach she was wearing six-inch heels and that she was fine with six inches (wink, wink)? Ewwww. Unhappily, I found myself fantasizing. Which is to say this reality show is not my reality.
What did interest me, though, was all the teeth. I’ve never seen so many teeth on one screen. The size of the teeth! The mass! The dazzle! When I realized I was more distracted by teeth than by the overexposed boobage, I thought, That’s it: Teeth are the new boobs. I mentioned this recently to New York City cosmetic dentist Marc Lowenberg, who likens XXL chompers — which are often veneers, but we’ll get to that — to the bosomy largesse of DD implants.
It should probably come as no surprise that teeth whitening is the most popular dental procedure in the U.S., with a $6.9 billion global market and growing, along with a $2.1 billion global market for veneers. Which brings me to a reader question about the condition of her smile.
Q: I’ve noticed that my smile has changed as I’ve gotten older. What gives?
A: What gives? Gum tissue gives. The likelihood is that your gums have begun to shrink away from the crown portion of your teeth, exposing some of the root. The length of the average front tooth is 9 to 12 millimeters; with recession and root exposure, it can become as long as 15 millimeters, said Lowenberg. (That’s where the expression “long in the tooth” comes from, indicating someone of advanced age.) In the same way that skin loses collagen fibers, gum tissue loses mass. The best preventive thing you can do is to brush and floss twice a day, which can help keep your gums free of bacteria and, therefore, recession-worsening disease. But don’t overdo it: Overly vigorous cleaning can scrub away gum tissue. I like this dentist-recommended toothbrush.
With their determination to preserve a healthy and vital — and maybe even youthful — appearance, TGB contestants would be wise to invest in their smiles. Poor dental aesthetics are linked to lack of self-confidence — and studies show that discolored teeth have a negative impact on social perceptions. Healthy chompers can also help preserve the architecture of the face, as the cheeks and lips are supported by the teeth and jaw. So having your teeth professionally whitened seems like a fine way to freshen up your face, because (a) white teeth are a sign of good health (and youth), and (b) the procedure isn’t outrageously expensive and is fairly easy. But Lowenberg pointed out that whitening — even when professionally done — rarely makes a dramatically obvious difference once your teeth have begun to darken; the darker they are, the harder it is to whiten them. The biggest drawback, he said, is that the whitening doesn’t last and must be repeated every 6 to 12 months for maintenance. Kits for home whitening have unpredictable results, he added.
If you decide to go ahead with a professional whitening, you want to aim low, anyway. It’s best to start out with a natural shade of pale rather than a whiter one. (Too-white teeth look fake at any age, but on a mature person, they can look … false.) Finding the most natural-looking shade partly depends on your skin tone: Simply, the lighter your skin, the lighter your teeth can be, as olive or darker skin can create too much contrast with bright pearly whites. Better if your tooth color matches the whites of the eyes, which is typically a creamy off-white.
Considering the age of TGB contestants, it’s more likely that overzealous whitening doesn’t wholly account for the teeth situation. A better explanation is veneers. They’ve been popping up all over the place. Why now? Washington Post reporter Jessica Goldstein attributes the ubiquitous dazzle to social media (one Beverly Hills cosmetic dentist has over 750,000 followers on Instagram) and to the current accessibility of aesthetic dentistry. The dentist with the huge following claims he can make women in their 40s and 50s look like they’re 30. Goldstein reports there’s even a cosmetic dentist, Sara Hahn, who tracks the size and quality of celebrity veneers at @veneercheck. Hahn studiously points out the reasons why many of these assisted smiles make people look, as Lowenberg put it, as if they swallowed a piano.
The key to a balanced smile is the ceramist, who actually makes the teeth, said Lowenberg. The most authentic-looking veneers require the artistry of a ceramist who creates each one by hand, layering different shades of porcelain to create translucence and texture. Without translucency, light bounces off the teeth, leading to what can emulate a cartoonish dazzle. Some people want that look, Lowenberg pointed out, though he doesn’t provide it, preferring a more natural-looking smile.
Like breast enlargement, veneers are expensive — between $2,000 and $4,500 per tooth and up to $100,000 or more for a full set. Like other aesthetic procedures, their expense and their chosen proportions can indicate all kinds of things about class, values, and aesthetic taste. I get that some people think bigger is better, in general. But as many of TGB contestants reveal, bigger can be distracting when that preference shows up in your face.