White teeth are always in, especially now when you can just CGI or filter your way to whiter pearly whites. Getting a brighter smile has never been more accessible, thanks to the many teeth-whitening options available.
But did you know this hyper-fixation over perfectly white smiles is not a 21st-century trend? Porcelain-like teeth have been the beauty standard since before toothpaste was on the market. Why are humans obsessed with teeth whitening? Let’s dig deep into history to find the answer.
Polishing and brightening teeth is a habit older than toilet paper and electricity. Around 4,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians whitened their teeth with a homemade paste. They would grind pumice stones and mix the powder with white vinegar. This process popularised the white teeth look, which became a status of wealth and beauty in those days.
While Cleopatra might have used a pumice stone to maintain her pearly whites, Julius Caesar had a different approach. The ancient Romans were unafraid to repurpose pee as a teeth-whitening mouthwash. Although repulsive, this trick worked well. Urine contains ammonia, a compound now employed as a cleaning agent in modern times.
Sometime later, people began cleaning their teeth with chew sticks made of a miswak twig. Rubbing soot and chalk on teeth to bring out the natural brightness of enamel later became standard. By the 17th century, barbers added “teeth whitening” to their catalogue. This service included filing down the teeth and applying nitric acid. Did it work? Yes, but it led to bronchitis and tooth decay. By the 1840s, the first teeth whitener with chloride was introduced.
The Science of Modern Teeth Whitening
The 19th century marked the beginning of professional teeth bleaching. With the popularity of chloride for teeth whitening, more effective techniques came about using sodium hypochlorite and oxalic acid. Dentists saw a breakthrough when they discovered hydrogen peroxide, a solution for treating gum disease that could lighten teeth by several shades.
In the 1960s, Dr Bill Klusmier invented the first successful home teeth-whitening kit: Gly-Oxide. The product included a custom-made mouth tray that contained 10% carbamide peroxide. More companies followed suit and tested different concentrations of hydrogen and carbamide peroxide. Currently, 15% to 40% of peroxide is the golden standard of bleaching gel for laser teeth whitening and at-home kits. When applied to the teeth, carbamide peroxide releases hydrogen peroxide, breaking down the chemical structure of tooth stains. The higher the peroxide concentration, the faster it brightens teeth.
From rinsing with urine to applying bleaching gel, humans have gone to great lengths to achieve white-as-snow teeth. Although the average in-clinic teeth whitening cost can reach hundreds of dollars, some see this as a worthy investment – not to validate their oral hygiene but more to enhance their status. According to various studies, a “perfect” smile reinforces someone’s likability and socioeconomic status in several ways.
More success in dating
What makes a person attractive? It’s not just the hair or the face. Turns out, teeth are one of the biggest indicators when it comes to pre-screening potential partners. A PLOS One study reports both men and women prefer partners with white, straight teeth. This finding is also supported by a 2017 Match.com survey in which 37% of singles claim to judge a date by their teeth or smile. So if you want to take someone’s breath away, smile and show those pearly whites!
A career boost
Teeth can be just as important as a resume while job hunting. A study titled “The Impact of Whiter Teeth on Key First Impressions” shows that people with whitened teeth are likelier to get jobs and receive higher salaries. A bright smile supposedly makes you look more professional, confident, trustworthy, and outgoing. Plus, it shows your diligence and attentiveness in caring for oral health. For many people, white teeth also symbolise financial success.
Better first impressions
Whether you want to charm your future in-laws, associates, or a family relative, the best icebreaker is a blinding white smile. In a survey from the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 48% of the participants say they most remember a person’s smile after their first meeting. Nearly half of the participants also believe that a smile is the most attractive feature anyone can have, regardless of age. That means you’re forgiven if you make a few slip-ups, as long as your teeth stay sparkly white.
But apart from the whiteness, how straight your teeth are plays a role, too. The same survey indicates that straighter teeth can elevate attractiveness. Consult your dentist for recommendations on achieving your ideal smile. Perhaps you can inquire about aligners like ClearCorrect. These see-through plastic devices are stain-resistant, so you never have to worry about your teeth appearing yellow. You can even whiten your teeth as you go through your dental treatment.
Access to safe teeth-whitening procedures and brace-free orthodontics are the perks of living in the 21st century. Your dream smile is within your reach! One pearl of wisdom: your self-worth is not solely dictated by how shiny your teeth look. Do what makes you feel your best.
Patel, H. (2022). Essential principles of tooth whitening. BDJ in Practice, 35(9), 46. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41404-022-1711-1
Carey, C. M. (2014). Tooth Whitening: What We Now Know. Journal of Evidence Based Dental Practice, 14, 70–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebdp.2014.02.006
Hendrie, C., & Brewer, G. (2012). Evidence to Suggest That Teeth Act as Human Ornament Displays Signalling Mate Quality. PLOS ONE, 7(7), e42178. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0042178
New Study Shows Whiter Teeth Can Lead to Greater Success in Work and Love. (n.d.). https://news.pg.com/news-releases/news-details/2007/New-Study-Shows-Whiter-Teeth-Can-Lead-to-Greater-Success-in-Work-and-Love/default.aspx
Best Face Forward. (n.d.). https://aacd.com/proxy/files/Publications%20and%20Resources/AACD_First_Impressions.pdf