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Let There Be White: Tooth enamel discoloration is given letter grades. Are you ready for the test?

Laser Lightening

The latest advances in cosmetic dentistry are positively blinding

By Jack Shamama

There comes a point in young adulthood when you look in the mirror and the image looking back no longer seems deluded by the false hope of youth. After enough cigarettes and coffee to cause a permanent tremor and hacking cough, I couldn't lie to myself anymore--my teeth were hardly white, let alone pearly. When I told two friends that I intended to get my teeth whitened, they both referred me to an episode of Friends as a cautionary tale. I didn't see it, but it goes something like this: The nerdy but lovable friend gets his teeth whitened but the dentist does too good of a job and his teeth end up glowing in the dark. The anorexic, anal-retentive friend and the cute-but-dumb friend think up an obnoxious nickname for him and repeat it over and over until the end of the episode.

I said, "Sign me up!" My goal was to get blaringly white teeth--the prospect of being able to read in bed without a nightlight was very appealing. I started with some old advice from my family dentist: first dip your toothbrush in hydrogen peroxide and then in baking soda before brushing. But I found it to be untasty--after a couple of weeks, the mere thought of brushing my teeth made me dry heave. Besides, my teeth weren't noticeably whiter. It was time to move onto more drastic measures. After some preliminary research, I quickly realized that there were a mind-numbingly large number of teeth-whitening options available. I enlisted the editorial staff of Metropolitan to help me get to the bottom of this mystery: If there is a way of making your teeth WHITE white, we would find it.

There are two basic types of procedures available: those that involve bleaching gel and molds and those that involve lasers. Neither is perfect and each has its own irritating side effects. Beginning with the cheapest option available, my first guinea pig tried the over-the-counter do-it-yourself Home Whitening Kit by Dentech. The kit instructed the user to bite into two enclosed pieces of wax and mail them to a lab. Two weeks later, she received two plastic teeth molds and 12 syringes of bleaching gel. Simple enough. But problems arose with the application. She was supposed to wear the trays for two hours every other day. Who has the time? Plus, the gel foams on contact, so she couldn't get away with wearing these in the company of anyone other than someone who wouldn't be fazed by seeing her foam at the mouth. My subject gave up on this procedure with 11 syringes left. Advantages: lowest-cost option, no actual interaction with a dentist. Disadvantages: huge time commitment; symptoms not unlike early-onset rabies.

My second yellow-toothed test subject was dispatched to Dr. Ronald Yee's Richmond office (415.668.0526) to try the Day White 2 Method. The first day, her mouth was fitted for molds and she was forced to watch an informational video. Several days later, she was given a take-home kit along with precise instructions. The only difference between the over-the-counter whitening kits and the kind you get from a dentist is the potency of the active ingredient, carbamide peroxide. It's sort of like bleaching your hair--sure, 40-volume developer will make you blond quicker, but it may also cause your hair to fall out. The first usage of the Day White kit produced some alarming results--her gums turned white and bled. After severe flossing and a few days off, she began the regiment again using less gel. This time there was no blood and she had whiter teeth (her gums, incidentally, returned to normal). Advantages: quicker than over-the-counter whitening kits. Disadvantages: requires two trips to the dentist; not for the sensitive-gummed.

Since neither of the gel-type procedures produced the striking results for which I hoped, I decided it was time to move on to the dental profession's big guns: laser whitening. My third test subject was sent to Dr. Mona Y. Moy's office in the Sunset (415.664.4733) for the "Brite Smile" laser technique. After her mouth was stretched open wide, "like something from Jim Carrey's Mask," Dr. Moy aimed a high-powered laser at her teeth. Every 15 minutes, the dentist repositioned the laser to a different section of her teeth. The one-hour procedure produced "striking" results. Although the laser got pretty hot and the subject was required to sit still for an hour, any unpleasantness was overcome by the friendly and comfortable environment of Dr. Moy's office. Advantages: instant results, no drooling. Disadvantages: must sit in a dentist's chair for over an hour and pay many hundreds of dollars.

I opted for an argon-laser treatment by the highly recommended Dr. Rebecca Castaneda in downtown SF (415.986.1616 ). I knew I was going to be in for a treat when I stepped into her stark, black-and-white office, tastefully decorated with a few well-placed pieces of Venetian glass. The soothing sounds of Jobim were playing as I reclined in the chair, and for the first time, dental-phobic me wasn't afraid. Before turning the beam on, she carefully applied a plastic coating over my gums for added protection. Then with the skill of an artist she applied a thin coating of gel over my teeth (I later discovered she actually holds an art degree). From there, she pointed the laser at my teeth. The whole procedure lasted less than 30 minutes, but to make the time fly Dr. Castaneda belted out a few tunes as she zapped my teeth. The whole experience was sublime--I left there feeling like I was walking out of the Red Door Salon, not a dentist's office. And my teeth looked damn good--not stop-traffic white, but I have a feeling no one could have made them any whiter. Advantages: all doctor visits should be this fun. Disadvantages: might need to wait until your company goes public before you can afford an appointment .

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From the April 3, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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