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Whiter than white

25 September 2015

Whiter than white

It may be nothing new, but that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. Illegal tooth whitening persists all across the UK. This year, the GDC has prosecuted 24 people for the unlawfully practising dentistry – already more than the whole of last year. That could mean that more people are offering the service. Or it could just mean that more are getting caught. Either way it is a persistent problem.

The problem has risen to such levels that, for once, the mainstream media is talking about dentistry in such a way that dentists are not the targets, but the ones speaking sense. (Conversely, type the words “Dentist”, “Daily” and “Mail” into Google and see the perspective the mainstream media usually has reserved for dentists). A recent BBC report highlighted the practice of a repeat offender in Northern Ireland, and it even gained some airtime on 5live Investigates last Sunday morning (well worth checking out about 45 mins in).

As we all know, the law states that only a dentist registered with the General Dental Council can offer to practise dentistry. And we also know that tooth whitening is the practise of dentistry. So why is it that you can now get your teeth whitened at a beauty salon?

The Whitener’s perspective

On one hand, it is clear why budding entrepreneurs are jumping on this bandwagon. This week alone, another two people have been prosecuted! A quick and easy service for them, as much as £100 in their pocket and a customer is out the door. If they get caught and brought to court, they could get fined a few hundred, a few thousand. Next to their yearly profits from such a pursuit, what’s a (relatively) measly fine?

With most things now available on the internet (as this rather foolish man can no doubt attest), the tools with which to carry out these treatments are readily available. They know they can get them, they know they can make money from them. For those incorporating into the services they offer in their High Street beauty salon, they know the option of offering white teeth fits in perfectly with the aesthetically pleasing services they offer. The costs, for them, definitely outweigh the potential risks

In the 5Live show, journalist Claire Savage indicates that one such woman prosecuted by the GDC in January of this year was not put off by the conviction and several thousand pound fine. “It didn’t deter her,” Claire explained. “Less than a month later she was back offering the service. I spotted her ad on Facebook. It said “Was £99, now its £50”.” Presenter Adrian Goldberg then quips “How could we resist?” but that comment does strike a chord with a real source of the problem in this matter. Why, indeed, are people getting this treatment here? The motivations of salon owners and savvy businesspeople trying to make some cash are clear. So what is it that makes people turn to these treatments?

The dentist’s perspective

We did a special feature on this issue in 2013. 2 years on: has much changed? Many in the profession spoke eloquently and strongly on the issue at the time. Quick to point to the dangers, and firm in their recommendations for those found guilty. Dr Gita Auplish, from Harley Street practice Bandlish and Auplish, said: “We’re trained, we know what we’re doing, we can keep an eye on patients and it’s all done in a controlled environment. If patients go and see a beautician on the high street and they don’t know what they’re doing it can ulcerate their gums away. I think it’s up to the Trading Standards to come down on [illegal teeth whiteners] like a ton of bricks. The whole point of this is patient safety and the general public need to be protected from these people.”

The profession now is just as loud on the issue. The much maligned GDC had their say on the issue on the 5Live programme. Francesca Keen told the programme: “We’ve seen a number of injuries to individuals who are unregistered and unqualified. We’ve seen burns to the mouth, burns to the lips and gums and a few patients hospitalised. One was in hospital for 3 days after they consumed incorrectly applied products. People need to understand that any damage done can be irreversible.”

That is crucially the message that needs to penetrate into public consciousness. This is dangerous. You need to avoid it at all costs. And if it truly comes down to a matter of cost, then the cost of professional teeth whitening by a properly trained dentist or hygienist is far cheaper than the potential long-term cost (both monetary and physically) of a botched whitening job. But the profession alone cannot change perceptions. They need strong support.

Dr Uchenna Okoye told the BBC radio show that really punitive measures need to be put in place for these illegal practitioners. Currently, the sanctions are not acting as a deterrent for these crimes. They need to be far more severe to have any effect. That’s a good starting point. Taking these services away from the High Street is a crucial step.

Dentists are speaking loudly, and on several important issues, but are the public listening? Evidence so far this year suggests that they may be starting to: on sugar, on children’s oral health. Why not this too?

The patient’s perspective

It may be easy to point to things like ignorance of the dangers of these illegal tooth whiteners or people simply turning to the cheapest option (and believe me, it’s very tempting to pick one or both of those) but it’s hard to escape the fact that we care quite a lot about our teeth. We want them to look the best and will go to great lengths to make them as perfect as they can be.

Survey after survey has pointed to how seriously we want to have good teeth but they have also highlighted the depths we go to achieve this. 2 in 5 of us worry about how our mouths look every day, while another 2 in 5 of us have tried some form of DIY dentistry to improve our smile. We want perfect teeth but we’re not willing to listen to the best advice on the matter. The best advice of course, coming from dentists, is never a quick fix. So people turn to solutions that promise quicker results that doesn’t cost so much. As is often the case, if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

It’s a strange thing that conventional wisdom would fall on deaf ears in these kinds of situations but it definitely seems as if we are often colour-blind when it comes to our teeth: it is simply a case of black and white. 

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