Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Teeth-lightening leaves many smiling

Eddi-Anne Kostkowicz, a sales assistant at an investment banking firm in New York, used to hate smiling for photographs and sometimes felt self-conscious when she met with new clients.

"My teeth looked dingy and dirty," said Kostkowicz, 33, a former smoker who acknowledges enjoying coffee in the morning and a glass or two of red wine at dinner. "I had been walking around so miserable about my teeth."

She recently bought herself a whiter, brighter smile at a New York teeth-whitening center, one of several that have popped up across the country. Kostkowicz says she paid $525 _ a discount from the usual $600 fee _ at the center, called BriteSmile, and she has been "skipping since I left there."

"It's a big difference," said Kostkowicz, who works at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. "My teeth are beautiful. In these few hours since I left the office, I have been given a new confidence. I feel as if I'm floating. I'm going to smile in pictures for the first time since I was a teenager."

More people are entering the world of teeth-brightening _ whether through their dentists' offices, grocery-store toothpaste and whitening strips or, in the newest trend, walk-in teeth-brightening centers like the one Kostkowicz tried. Some are professionals looking to improve their self-confidence. Many are aging baby boomers in search of yet another way to recapture the youthful appearance they had before years of smoking and drinking coffee, tea or red wine darkened their pearly whites.

Whoever the clients, this 21st century version of the mid-1980s tanning salon is growing faster than a set of adult teeth on an 8-year-old, with equal ranks of men and women as customers.

Like most other body-consciousness trends, teeth-whitening began on the West Coast _ with movie stars, naturally. The big screen, magnifying every pore and every flaw, shows teeth the size of washing machines. Once the common folk started noticing those wonderful teeth, which are now widely and relatively cheaply available through the miracles of science and marketing, many of them realized that while they could not be Julia Roberts, they could have teeth as white as hers.

Teeth-whitening is certainly cheaper and more accessible than the old alternatives of caps, laminates and bonding, which adhere to imperfect teeth or replace them. (And when it comes to emulating movie stars, whitening your teeth is a lot cheaper, much less painful and much faster than plastic surgery.)

But consumers may want to shop around before opening their wallets and their mouths. For starters, they should consider consulting with their dentists to see if they are candidates for teeth-whitening. Dentists typically discourage patients from undergoing any whitening procedures if they have severe gum disease or bleeding, cracks or cavities in their teeth or if they are pregnant or nursing. The American Dental Association Web site ( lists teeth-whitening and bleaching products, both professional and consumer, that have received its seal of acceptance, which means they are considered safe and efficient after, on average, two to six months of independent testing.

Costs and procedures vary. Procter & Gamble's Crest Whitestrips, a do-it-yourself teeth-whitening system that recently hit store shelves, costs about $40 an application. More advanced, in-office laser treatments can cost $1,500 or more, while bleaching treatments cost about $400.

Among the most popular is the BriteSmile system, which was developed by John Warner, a former NASA scientist, and is administered by about 3,000 independent dentists nationwide and in 14 company-owned centers in 12 cities. It uses a chemical gel that is activated by a special light and costs about $600 for an hourlong treatment. The company says it expects to perform 180,000 procedures this year, up from 10,400 in 1999, the year it opened. (You can even buy gift certificates for friends and family.)

Of course, results vary as well. "Some products work better than others," said Dr. Daniel Meyer, director of science for the ADA. He said, for example, that teeth stained by the antibiotic tetracycline may not respond well to many teeth-whitening applications. "Crowns that have been fabricated cannot be lightened; filling material won't lighten," he said.

Even Michael Whan, president of worldwide marketing at BriteSmile, which is based in Walnut Creek, Calif., cautioned that customers' expectations should not be too high. "All we are doing is eliminating stain," Whan said. "Your teeth are just going back to where they naturally were."

For the average customer, he said, that usually means eight shades of improvement, based on a 16-shade guide used by the dental industry. "We can't really pick out a particular shade and say, "We'll be there.' "

He also warned that about 8 percent of patients might experience some form of side effect, usually a dull ache that generally goes away after 24 hours.

Dr. Carmen Schuller, a dentist in New York, says she uses NiteWhite, which is made of bleaching agents, because "it's less harsh and more effective" than other products. (The patient uses it for seven to 10 days; there is maintenance every few years, she said.)

Kostkowicz reported a bit of tooth sensitivity after her BriteSmile treatment, but said she did not mind; she also was not bothered by the 24-hour prohibition on coffee and red wine. "I'd do it again," she said.

Many people who have their teeth whitened will have to use bleaching agents periodically to maintain the results, since most procedures begin to fade after a year or two.

"It's not going to last forever," said Dr. Edward J. Littman, a dentist in Livingston, N.J., who uses a variety of teeth-whitening products on his patients. "It will not last without reinforcements."