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Lynn Hutchinson, left, and Andrea Hill-Kolody, right, attend a teeth-whitening party in Mississauga. At centre is host Tanya Hill-Webber.
Lynn Hutchinson, left, and Andrea Hill-Kolody, right, attend a teeth-whitening party in Mississauga. At centre is host Tanya Hill-Webber.

Tooth-whitening parties

Price choppers: Get pearly whites for 99 bucks Add to ...

Tanya Hill-Webber is smiling. Or is that grimacing?

It's hard to tell because a cheek retractor has stretched her lips waaay back.

She says something that sounds like "gur um dar gro dra drum," which translates as, "Get yourself some wine and help yourself to the cheese."

Hill-Webber is hosting the evening's gathering - a teeth-whitening party, the hottest new entry to the world of in-home selling. It promises a smile "one to eight times whiter" at a fraction of the cost charged at a dentist's office.

As Billy Joel plays in the background, Hill-Webber and two guests recline on loungers under blue LED lights, which accelerate the action of a bleaching gel on their teeth.

Dressed in purple scrubs and wearing latex gloves is Sharon Hibbert, a human resources executive by day, toothpreneur by night. She's provided the hostess and her guests with mouth trays, filled with a 35-per-cent solution of carbamide peroxide, to insert themselves. "I never put my hands in anyone's mouth," she says. "That's why I can do what I do. I never pretend I am a dentist."

Hibbert is part of a trend that has moved up from the United States, where teeth-whitening kiosks are ubiquitous in malls and salons. Her price for the 20-minute treatment is $99, which seems like a steal compared to the $300 to $1,000 typically charged at the dentist.

Not surprisingly, the dental profession is not smiling at the trend, noting that the service they offer in-clinic differs in several ways, not to mention that their staff are trained.

"It is best to speak with your dentist for the best approach to tooth-whitening," says Dr. Don Friedlander, president of the Canadian Dental Association. "It is your oral health. Seek a professional."

In the United States, where a recent Harvard Business Publishing report calls teeth-bleaching a $30-to-$50-million (U.S.) a year business, the Journal of the American Dental Association has warned consumers that people offering teeth-whitening at the local mall kiosk "may have no health-care training and no license to provide health care services … they are dispensing chemicals that could permanently affect your teeth and gingivae (gums)."

While some states have now outlawed the practice, in Canada it is unregulated. A Health Canada spokeswoman says that there are no laws at present mainly because cosmetic teeth-whitening is a relatively new phenomenon. Its policies, as outlined on its website, are aimed more at take-home whitening kits that are deemed safe - "when used as directed."

Dental professionals typically do teeth whitening in-clinic, painting the teeth with a gel-based hydrogen peroxide solution activated with a laser. At Dr. Armaghan Afsar and Dr. Andrew Charkiw's cosmetic dentistry practice in Toronto's Yorkville district, for example, the 90-minute service costs $695.

Dentists who use mouth trays - usually as part of a kit they send home with the patient - use gels containing carbamide peroxide, such as the cosmetic teeth-whiteners use, but only at 10-per-cent strength. They are usually applied at home for an hour a day over a two-week period.

To Laura Tam, an associate professor at the faculty of dentistry at the University of Toronto, the 35 per-cent solution commonly used by cosmetic teeth-whiteners seems high.

"Thirty-five per-cent is a higher concentration than what the vast majority of the studies that support the safety and effectiveness of bleaching treatments are based on, which is the use of 10-per-cent carbamide peroxide," she says. "You'll definitely get soft tissue irritation with the higher concentration. And with the use of [LED]light, you are heating up the teeth more, and drying them out and so they will look whiter as a result of that. As soon as the teeth are rehydrated they will look darker again."

But to many, the attraction of an affordable sparkly smile is too much to resist. Teeth-whitening franchise opportunities are popping up on Kijiji, while more and more "mobile services" are being advertised by small operators like Hibbert, who launched her business in April under the name, The Tooth Fairy.

"I invested $3,000 in start-up costs," she says, "but already I've made more than that back in just a few months time."

Sheila Seath offers her teeth-whitening service through Teri & Co, a salon and spa in Warkworth, Ont., where clients get their teeth bleached while reclining in a heated massage chair.

She feels what she is doing is perfectly safe. "It's strictly a cosmetic procedure," she says. "What I'm doing here is basically making sure the right amount of peroxide is measured, and that the client is comfortable."

Overuse of teeth-whiteners appears to be the dental profession's the biggest concern. Excessive bleaching can dehydrate teeth temporarily, making them extra sensitive. As well, peroxide, which soaks through enamel to break up stain-forming molecules, can irritate gums if used too aggressively.

People who want teeth whiter than nature intended, reaching repeatedly for the peroxide, suffer from "bleachorexia," a word coined by the American Dental Association.

Hibbert says she takes proper precautions, insisting that clients fill out a questionnaire and sign a waiver stating that they understand her pre-whitening speech about how the product works and possible side-effects. The bleach is not effective on crowns or teeth discoloured from taking the drug tetracycline. And it can cause increased sensitivity and a temporary bleaching of the gums along the tooth line.

She doesn't treat pregnant and lactating women, people with tooth decay, periodontal disease or gingivitis. Which is why one of the clients tonight has to forgo the procedure: "I've answered three yeses in a row," says Lynn Hutchinson, an elementary school teacher with a retainer and a pronounced sensitivity to bright light.

"Sorry, Lynn," you're not a candidate for teeth-whitening," says Hibbert, taking back her tooth tray.

For once this evening someone in the room isn't smiling.

Hill-Webber, on the other hand, can't stop. The 20-minute procedure has left her teeth four shades lighter, and with barely a crease in her pocketbook. "I'm very happy," she says, barely able to pull herself away from the mirror.

For more information on tooth whitening, please consult the Health Canada fact sheet, The Safe Use of Home Tooth Whitening Kits: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/life-vie/teeth-dents-eng.php

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