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People are illegally whitening their teeth and most have no idea

A lack of education has seen unqualified beauticians performing teeth whitening treatments that, unbeknownst even to them, are illegal. As the demand for pearly whites, fuelled by Love Islanders and influencers, peaks we investigate

If you’ve ever watched Love Island and felt the urge to buy a gym membership and whiten your teeth, you’re not alone. At-home teeth whitening brand Rapid White reported a 10 per cent increase in sales post the programme hitting our screens in 2018. We currently live in an era where going to the dentist is viewed by some as part of a beauty routine, and having white teeth has never been more sought after, and more available. This, in part, is due to the prevalence of whitening in influencer culture, yet not every whitening job can be attributed to the same catalyst. 

Globally, cosmetic tooth bleaching is a $3.2 billion global industry. That doesn’t factor in the illegal market. In the UK, teeth whitening can only be performed by professionals (dentists or qualified hygienists) registered with the General Dentist Council (GDC). This means that beauticians offering the service can gain a criminal record and an unlimited fine if caught bleaching teeth. Last year 732 cases of illegal teeth whitening were reported to the GDC, a 26 per cent increase from 2018. While the treatment may appear to be cosmetic, Dr Ben Atkins, president of the Oral Health Foundation, says that in the hands of someone who isn’t a professional, the customer's health is at risk.

“We’ve seen the use of totally illegal whitening solutions, such as 35 per cent hydrogen peroxide, which can cause really bad burns in patients’ mouths or chemicals (such as chlorine dioxide and sodium perborate) that have actually been made illegal in the UK to use,” Atkins explains. “It’s stressful having any dental work done. Now if you’re having that in someone’s bedroom, and you have a heart attack (or another medical emergency), often those beauticians are not trained to save lives.” On the other hand, part of dentistry training is learning what to do in life-threatening situations. He then goes to list hepatitis B, HIV, and TB as real risks from using unsterile instruments. You could expect a dentist to use five per cent hydrogen peroxide when whitening teeth but it does, however, mean that some illegal whitening procedures would achieve a whiter look – perhaps explaining why people might be willing to risk the side effects. Certain illegal services also offer a lower price than the £200-£300 it can cost to whiten teeth professionally at a UK dentist.

If you buy a teeth whitening product (such as Spotlight’s popular Teeth Whitening Strips Kit) from over the counter, you could reasonably assume it will be 0.1 per cent hydrogen peroxide, the legal concentration sold in the UK. This, however, doesn’t factor in other potentially dangerous ingredients such as sodium chlorite, and it’s also important to note that many brands don’t disclose the level of hydrogen peroxide their products contain. A recent study led by the University of Manchester Dental School found that three over-the-counter products contained sodium chlorite and could, in the presence of acid, “significantly reduce the hardness of the teeth and increase the likeliness for future surface abrasions of the teeth.” This becomes even harder to regulate online, where products containing more than 33 per cent hydrogen peroxide are rampant.

“We’ve seen the use of totally illegal whitening solutions, such as 35 per cent hydrogen peroxide, which can cause really bad burns in patients’ mouths or chemicals that have actually been made illegal in the UK to use ... If you have a heart attack (or another medical emergency), often those beauticians are not trained to save lives” – Dr Ben Atkins, president, Oral Health Foundation

A spokesperson from the British Dental Association says that the illegal products are hard to quantify, but that they believe it’s a “considerable” problem, with “social media, influencers, and celebrities” feeding the demand. “Illegal teeth whiteners take advantage of both unsuspecting customers looking for a brighter smile, and dodgy training companies lure non-dental professionals into doing courses, unaware of the laws that govern teeth whitening,” they explain. “The public needs to be more aware of what the law is on teeth whitening and not gamble with their health. Until recently, the fines for breaking the law appeared to be insufficient to deter fraudsters.” 

To date, the largest fine for illegal teeth whitening has been in excess of £15,000. Of all the illegal tooth whitening cases brought to court, 100 per cent have been given a guilty verdict. While this number is high, the low rate of cases being brought against illegal practitioners indicates that this isn’t a priority. In 2018, The GDC did not bring any cases against training companies and only prosecuted 31 individuals across the UK. This brings to light a legal gap in which many practitioners can operate for years in the open without facing punishment, with a considerably low fine if caught. Brenda McFadyen was convicted of illegal whitening teeth and even reported that she didn’t know what she was doing was against the law because she received training cosmetically. She was fined £1,000 after doing it for three or four years. McFadyen says the experience broke her “big time”. “I was never given any bother before as I had never hurt anyone,” she says.

For both customers and beauticians alike, there’s a lack of knowledge around the potential severity of illegal teeth whitening, both legally and physically, and little to deter beauty courses from teaching illegal teeth whiteners to unqualified beauticians.  In fact, a BBC investigation found the London School of Nails and Beauty providing teeth whitening training to students who were unaware that it could open them up to prosecution. One beauty school claimed to have trained “thousands” of candidates in a matter of four or five hours while assuring the students that it was legal. This, says Dr Atkins, is part of the much larger issue of how we view dentistry procedures such as whitening as purely cosmetic, or even “easy” after the increase in availability of at-home kits. “It takes me seven years to become a dentist. You can’t learn everything with regards to the anatomy and drug interactions in a three-hour course on a Saturday,” Atkins says. 

Molly, based in London, was a patient of an unqualified beautician after coming across a teeth whitening service on Instagram (which has since been deleted). Insecure of her naturally yellow teeth, Molly was tempted by the low price of £50 and her experience took place in the beautician's home. “I’d like to think she didn’t know what she was doing was illegal, she seemed so lovely,” she said. While Molly’s experience was somewhat drama-free, she did experience discolouration of a prominent filling. “I was happy with how white my teeth were, they were paper-white, but it did make my filling more obvious.” For this reason, Molly decided against ever having the treatment done again and was shocked to find out that the procedure was illegal when watching the BBC’s investigation. 

Dr Atkins has had numerous patients who are too embarrassed to admit they’ve had dentistry work done by a beautician and come to him after these procedures go wrong. A tell-tale sign is often that the teeth are whiter but the crowns and fillings are still the same colour, something he says dentistry professionals would advise against. Beyond this, there’s a possibility for lip burns from unregulated whitening to heavily impact a patient whose immune system is already compromised – with the risk of infection or even death.

The answer to the growing issue, it seems, is education and a shift in thinking when it comes to dentistry as a practice. When we trust beauticians with dentistry work, we’re undermining the value of the profession and the training that is required to work in that industry. Instead, Dr Atkins recommends that you opt for a visit to the dentist if Love Island has you itching to get your teeth whitened. “Speak to your dentist and ask what’s the best option for you before doing anything, because whitening might not be the treatment for you,” he explains. “It might be something as simple and cheap as a polish so you’ll want to find out all the options before you make a decision.”

This safer approach also requires a shift in mindset away from “perfect” looking teeth at the cost of oral health, as a simple clean may leave patients with a more natural-looking smile and many people have naturally different shades of teeth. However, with celebrities opting for veneers to achieve their ultra-white smile and celebrities like Kendall Jenner pushing teeth whitening products on her Instagram, this shift seems only possible in the distant future. This combined with the lack of emphasis on prosecuting the illegal beauty training facilities that provide false information to unassuming beauticians makes public education the most practical hope against teeth whitening disasters. With that in mind, tell a friend that their teeth are beautiful no matter the shade.