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Make Over Your Mouth

From a mere cleaning to tooth whitening to "smile design," a trip to the dentist can be a cosmetic experience these days.

WebMD Feature

If you're in the market for a makeover, there are many beauty specialists who can help you. You might turn to a hair stylist, cosmetic surgeon, or dermatologist. You probably wouldn't think of going to the dentist, yet dentists can do things for your appearance that no one else can.

It goes far beyond scraping the plaque off your choppers during a biannual checkup. "We have procedures where we can change the shape, size, and color of the teeth," says Michael Malone, a cosmetic dentist in Lafayette, La., and president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

Cosmetic dentistry isn't exactly a dental specialty. Those who call themselves cosmetic dentists do cleanings and drill cavities, too. They're just particularly interested in aesthetics, and they have extra training to do cosmetic procedures.

Tooth Whitening

The simplest and most common thing they do, akin to having Botoxshots, is tooth whitening. This is nothing new, but it is cheaper and easier today than it used to be.

"We were doing it 30 years ago," Malone says. "We were using at that time a very, very strong solution of hydrogen peroxide -- so strong that if it touched the lips or the gums it would actually injure a person."

In this type of tooth-whitening treatment, called "power bleaching," teeth are isolated with rubber dental dams, and the peroxide solution on the teeth is heated up with lamps.

"It worked, but it was so much trouble that very few people would go through it," Malone says. "Also, it was quite expensive because it took so long in the dental chair."

Power bleaching is still available, but there's a cheaper alternative. A new tooth-whitening technique uses lower-strength peroxides that are left on the teeth longer. Nevertheless, you don't pay for so much of the dentist's time.

After the dentist makes sure your teeth are healthy enough for the treatment -- fillings, bridges, cavities, or a gum infection may rule it out -- you have an impression of your teeth taken, and the impression is used to make a tray that holds a peroxide gel on the teeth. You wear this tray at home for a few hours every day, over the course of one to five weeks.

The resulting brilliant whiteness still isn't cheap. Depending on where you live, a take-home tooth whitening can cost anywhere from $150-$1,000. Double that for an in-office bleaching.

'Smile Design'

Tooth whitening can be just the beginning. If you want to get serious, you can have your teeth and gums overhauled completely. "Smile design" is what San Francisco cosmetic dentist Jerry Bellen calls it.

"Smile design is looking at the positions of somebody's teeth, and how the teeth are framed by the lips," he says.

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