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Photography Irving Penn for Vogue

The complex relationship between influencers and teeth whitening kits

TextOlivia Cassano

From Hollywood smiles to “piano teeth”: how a Colgate smile became the new detox tea

A perfunctory scroll through Instagram will inevitably pull up rows and rows of megawatt smiles, usually followed by a #spon promo code for an at-home whitening kit. Nowadays you can’t truly call yourself an influencer unless you’re promoting pearly whites, and the app is saturated with selfies of reality TV stars, bloggers, and Victoria’s Secret angels biting onto an LED mouthpiece, or bizarre (yet oddly satisfying) videos of instant whitening gels.

The appeal of a perfect smile is age-old and can be dated back to the 1920s when during the golden age of Hollywood movie stars started sporting pristine chompers. Fast forward a century, and everyone is walking around with ultra-white teeth that make you think of Ross in that episode of Friends. In fact, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 99.7% of people believe that a perfect smile is the most important social asset to have.

Not only has the demand for whiter teeth become one of today’s most popular cosmetic dentistry requests, but it has also become the most lucrative. The global cosmetic dentistry market is expected to be worth £22.5 billion by 2024, with the demand for tooth whitening treatments driving this growth. “Teeth whitening as a whole is a multi-billion dollar industry,” says Matthew Rose, implant surgeon and restorative dentist at The Implant Centre, who adds that social media influencers are leading the teeth-whitening market. “Social media, particularly Instagram, generally show us unrealistic images of teeth and smiles which are filtered and photoshopped, it’s rare to see a celebrity with less than perfect white, straight teeth. Most individuals want whiter looking teeth because the media features celebrities and influencers generally all sporting perfect white straight teeth, the majority of which are often veneers.” According to a survey by London dental surgery Elleven, 84% of respondents felt there was “more pressure to have a perfect smile due to the rise in adults and celebrities seeking orthodontic treatment”. It’s no wonder, then, that blindingly white, piano-key teeth have become the status quo.  

“A huge proportion of celebrities today are opting for veneers to achieve that ‘ultra white’ Hollywood smile, which is quite often unattainable for the average customer,” explains Rose. “For those influencers promoting teeth whitening kits on social media, many already have a super white smile so they are advertising something which quite possibly hasn’t been achieved by said ‘whitening’ product, unbeknownst to their fan base.” After Love Island aired last summer and Twitter imploded over Jack’s veneers, sales of at-home teeth whitening brand Rapid White increased by over 10%. “What makes teeth whitening brands so popular and successful on social media is how tangible the results are and how diversely it can fit with different audiences,” says Ed Brew, head of strategic partnerships at global influencer marketing platform PostForRent. “Teeth whitening is relevant to influencers for the same reasons as a consumer, if not more so as they are under more pressure to look “flawless” given their following, and it’s easy to see why influencers are so open to working with these products.”

“Whether they are reaching the “lads” audience who go out clubbing every week or the teenage girls who want to look like the women they see on Instagram, the teeth whitening companies are going to see sales,” adds Brew. He adds that FOMO is a huge factor in the popularity of teeth whitening, and we’re living in a sort of “well if everyone is doing it” catch 22. “[Teeth whitening kits] have endorsement at the highest levels of celebrity and, crucially, if people you know are whitening their teeth and it seems like the “done thing” nowadays, you don’t want to be that person left behind who will be seen as less attractive.”

Combine this with Gen Z’s selfie mentality with modern consumers’ desire for quick-fix treatments, and it’s understandable why more and more people are seeking out non-invasive aesthetic enhancements like teeth whitening. This is where brands like HiSmilePolished, and iWhite come in: if FaceTune won’t cut it, but you can’t afford professional teeth whitening, these kits are the next best thing. Professional teeth whitening can cost anywhere between £300 and £1000, while a HiSmile kit - which is arguably the most popular on Instagram and boasts advocates like Kylie Jenner and Conor McGregor - will only set you back £49.99. At-home whitening kits offer a no hassle, low investment and convenient alternative to professional treatments, but are they as effective as they’re made out to be?

“At-home whitening kits usually don’t work as well, will require more applications, so may not actually be cost-saving, and can even cause damage,” warns Dr. Reena Wadia. “Another key difference is the way in which the chemically active gel is applied to the teeth. Professional teeth whitening systems use a custom-made “tray” that holds the hydrogen peroxide gel in contact with the teeth and prevents it from contacting the gum tissue. This is important as if the gel touches the gums it can lead to gum irritation, inflammation and pain. We all want a beautiful white smile but it’s important to realise health is a critical part of that. Beautiful white teeth also need to be healthy.” And yet, research conducted by YouGov in 2017 found that most people in Britain are aware of the risks of dental disease, but aren’t active in preventing it.

“There are now strict guidelines in place for celebrities and influencers promoting a product or brand,” says Rose. “Consumers are now quick to see that actually, it could be something they are getting paid for, and not quite what the product is promising. My advice would be to speak to your dentist if you’re looking into whitening your teeth as they will be able to advise on the legitimate products and services available.” Although Instagram has undoubtedly become a scapegoat for unrealistic aesthetic standards, the platform’s ability in forging the beauty zeitgeist is unparalleled. The trend of whiter teeth is no exception.

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