Around 3000 B.C., Ancient Egyptians who wanted to look rich would chew on sticks that scraped off any unsightly teeth stains. Centuries later, Romans resorted to using urine as mouthwash, as ammonia in the fluid has similar—if incredibly dangerous—brightening effects.
In 2019, Americans rely on cosmetic dentists to make their teeth extra-pearly, though these doctors get help from an unlikely source.
“Whenever celebrities do their teeth, I’ll start hearing, ‘I want my teeth to look like that,’” Dr. Sarah Jebreil told The Daily Beast. After Kyle Richards from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills posted about her new veneers on Instagram, the reality star became a popular request for the Newport Beach-based dentist.
According to Dr. Jebreil, “[Richards] did her teeth, and a lot of older women came in saying they really liked how it looked. Whenever someone [famous] does their teeth, it gives people courage to do a transformation of their own.”
Dr. Elisa Mello of NYC Smile Design has been practicing on the Upper East Side for 27 years, and the desirability of one very famous mouth has endured her entire tenure. “We still get, ‘I want the Julia Roberts smile,’” Dr. Mello said. “Big, broad, confident, and friendly.”
However, some New Yorkers are not as charmed with Roberts’ toothy grin. As Dr. Mello explained, “There is another group of people who want perfection: very, very white. People point to celebrities like Halle Berry and Taylor Swift for that.”
It’s business-as-usual for Dr. Victoria Veytsman to field patients asking for the teeth of Meghan Markle, Sofia Vergara, and Hailey Baldwin. “Most of these smiles look really natural, and that seems to be the trend,” said Dr. Veytsman, who works out of Manhattan but also leads a Beverly Hills practice.
What makes a manufactured smile look natural, according to Dr. Mello, is a finding the right, delicate balance between perfection and personality.
“From my perspective, I believe that when you smile, you want your lips to drape completely over your teeth,” Dr. Mello explained. “There’s no blank space by your cheeks or teeth, and the mouth is filled up nicely with no shadows.”
Dr. Mello added that “natural” teeth are not blindingly white. “You want a little translucency on the lower third of your tooth,” she said. “In nature, teeth are not just a block of white.”
Out of nature, teeth are expensive. As the “cosmetic” prefix implies, makeovers for makeovers’ sake are not covered by insurance. In-office whitening can cost anywhere from $400 to $600. Veneers, or porcelain caps placed over teeth to cover imperfections, are priced per tooth. Dentists usually charge around $1000 to $4000 for that service.
The dentist also encourages patients to take the color of their gums into consideration: “If you have dark gum tissues, you don’t need to make [teeth] as white. Your gums will accentuate the color.”
Before you ZocDoc book your appointment to cop J. Lo's smile à la every woman who ever asked her hairstylist for “The Rachel,” know that most dentists use your inspiration as a starting-off point.
“It's difficult to exactly reproduce one person's smile in another person's mouth,” Dr. Veytsman said. “The end result will always look a bit different than [a photo].”
“Everybody has different jaw structures and different teeth sizing,” Dr. Jebreil added. “So many people just want this broad, ‘Meghan Markle’ smile full of teeth, but if they have a small mouth and big teeth, you physically can't get that because of the size and shape of what you have.”
Logistics aside, there is a chance patients might be attracted to more than just a star's mouth. According to Dr. Mello, “Sometimes a patient doesn't know what they like about a celebrity smile. They could come in with a full-length picture of someone. They're looking at the hair, the lips, the whole package.”
Ripping a picture of Sofia Vergara out of Us Weekly and toting it into an exam room seems somehow quaint; in 2019, patients are also coming in with an arsenal of Instagram screenshots.
“We often get patients that come in with photos of smiles that were found on Instagram influencers,” Dr. Veytsman said. Of course, super-white teeth, especially as seen on Instagram, are often the product of a FaceTune swipe or brightening filter.
According to Dr. Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist in New York who specializes in body image issues, research shows that people who compare themselves to others on social media tend to register influencers as peers, even if they have never met them in person.
“It doesn't matter if it's someone you went to high school with or Kim Kardashian,” Dr. Conason said. “When we see those highly curated, digitally altered images, it makes us feel like we're coming up short or that we're not good enough, while everyone else we know has a perfect life.”
Which leads to the last trend in cosmetic dentistry: immediacy. Recently, a 16 year-old girl came into the dentist's practice with her mother, because “she wanted her cheeks to look good for all the selfies she's taking.”
Dr. Jebreil recommended Invisalign, but the teen wanted “a quick fix.” The dentist decided to attach bonding, a white plastic, over the girl's teeth, to make things look more symmetrical. (Bondings can cost around $300 per tooth, downright affordable when compared to veneers.)
The plastic is not very strong, and activities such as nail biting can loosen the material. In a few years, the girl will either have to repair her bonding, or pick a more permanent method of correction.
“It was a temporary fix,” Dr. Jebriel said. “No one wants to wait. They want their teeth fast, white, and pretty.”