Last week saw the airing of the first of a two-part mini-series claiming to reveal the ‘truth’ about British teeth. Dr Chris van Tulleken proposes that the British population take less care of their teeth than other populations, giving the UK a bad reputation for oral hygiene. Films such as Austin Powers don’t do this reputation any favours: the discoloured and misaligned teeth of Austin Powers says a lot about how British teeth are viewed. But are we really that bad as a nation?
Many professionals disagree, claiming instead that this view is outdated and that the British are increasingly conscious about their oral hygiene. Lance Knight, who is a dentist based in Manchester, believes that the British ‘want their teeth to look better’. Rather than the emphasis being on perfect straight shining white teeth however, the focus tends to be more on teeth being cleaner, slightly straighter, but above all, natural looking. Knight claims that approximately 9 out of 10 of his cosmetic dentistry customers come to him looking for an ‘improved smile’, with only 10% wanting perfect white straight teeth such as those of celebrities like Cheryl Fernandez-Versini.
Across the nation there is a greater awareness than in times past of teeth and the appearance of our smile: the amount that the UK spend privately on improving teeth has dramatically increased. In fact, it has risen by almost 30% over the last five years. Whilst the British still fall along way behind the US in terms of the number of adults who have had teeth-whitening work, increasing numbers are seeking consultations from their dentist and looking into options for improving their smile.
So what is the reason behind this increase in British concern about teeth appearance? Today’s media features increasing numbers of people with perfect smiles. These range from celebrities and teen role models, through to ordinary people in magazines. In addition, teeth-whitening and improvement has become increasingly linked to the beauty industry. Magazines now feature adverts and advice for new toothpastes and products to help whiten or improve the appearance of teeth, and some beauty salons have links to dental practices who offer whitening procedures. As a nation, we are increasingly appearance driven, as a part of this we become increasingly concerned about the health of our teeth too.
Given that the British are showing more interest in the appearance of their teeth, you may question how far this extends to all-round oral health. The UK fairs very well in studies compiling data about oral health coming out above the US in some cases. For example, in 2008 the average number of missing or decayed teeth per 12 year old was 0.7. For the US this figure was 1.3. In fact, in the oral health stakes, British teeth have improving for a long time, and have been better than those of the US since the mid-1990s (when decay and replacement rates are considered). People in the UK are said to be among the most likely in Europe to attend dental surgeries, with around 72% adults visiting their dentist. This all spells good times ahead for British teeth.
In the past, myths about ‘bad British teeth’ may have held some truth. The ‘Big Book of British Smiles’ which featured in The Simpsons certainly contained plenty of images of some quite horrific smiles from the UK. However, as a nation our awareness about our oral health is improving, and so is our desire to maintain a great looking smile. This is paying off, and although there is still much work to be done, Britain certainly has a lot to smile about.
For more information see recent BBC News article, or catch Dr Chris van Tulleken in ‘The Truth About Your Teeth’ (part two airs on BBC One, 11th June at 9pm).