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Addictive Pursuit of Pearly Whites?

Some users of teeth-whitening products become fixated on getting the perfect smile.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

For seekers of physical perfection who live by the slogan, "You can never be too thin," there's a new one to chew on: "Your teeth can never be too white."

Some are taking the attainment of white teeth to the extreme by exclusively -- and excessively -- using over-the-counter teeth-whitening products.

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The most widely used of these over-the counter products are whitening strips and a tray-based technique, in which a plastic tray, containing a bleaching gel, fits over a person's teeth and is worn for part of the day.

Some experts are reluctant to call this mania an addiction. "No, it is not possible to become addicted to teeth-whitening agents," says Robert Gerlach, DDS. Gerlach is principal scientist for worldwide clinical investigations at Procter & Gamble, the maker of Crest Whitestrips.

Others acknowledge that people are often guilty of overusing over-the-counter teeth-whitening products. How does this fixation start and what are the consequences?

What Motivates Overuse

For some, it's a narcissistic compulsion to maintain their youth, analogous to going for repeated plastic surgery, says Richard Frances, MD, an addiction expert and a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical School. "People are obsessed with the idea of perfecting their bodies and warding off the effects of age," he says.

Matthew Messina, DDS, a dentist in private practice in Cleveland and a spokesman for the American Dental Association, says television makeover programs have had a tremendous influence in making people see how an investment in their smile was also an investment in self-confidence. But this awareness, he says, "can be obsessive if we become hyperfixated."

"People are looking for anything they can get their hands on that can improve every part of the way they look, every advantage possible to one-up the next person" says James H. Doundoulakis, DMD. Doundoulakis has a cosmetic dentistry practice in New York and is the co-author of The Perfect Smile: The Complete Guide to Cosmetic Dentistry.

"Because of New York's competitive nature," Doundoulakis says, "you need all the tools - and one of them is that smile, which not only shows you're confident but that you're healthy and you have energy."

The Warning Signs of Overuse

While Messina underscores that "tooth whitening is a very safe and effective technique when done according to the product manufacturer's instructions and under the recommendations of a dentist," some people are after more than that. The warning sign for Messina is when patients "look for changes in their teeth to correct other issues and problems that have nothing to do with their teeth," such as improving their social lives or getting a better job.

Messina says that even a little bit of overuse of an over-the-counter whitening agent "is not going to do any long-term damage. The reason, he says, is "the safety margins for over-the-counter products is pretty large."

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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