I have Austin Powers teeth. Starman-era David Bowie teeth. They’re snaggly and yellow, and when I smile, I look like a Dickensian dog. It’s not necessary for me to speak: If you saw them, you’d immediately know I was British, while wondering what it’s like to carry Stonehenge around in my mouth. But I’ve got news for you, oh people of the United States of Gleaming Teeth, with your winning ad-break smiles: British teeth are still better.
“If you look at the statistics, they show British teeth are healthier than American [teeth],” says Ben Atkins, a trustee of the Oral Health Foundation. “A recent joint study [between University of London and Harvard] showed the average American person was missing 7.31 teeth compared to 6.97 in Britain, which is significantly higher.” Further studies also showed that Britain topped OECD countries for good teeth, with only 0.7 missing or filled teeth in its 12-year-olds (the testing age generally used by the industry) compared to 1.3 in the U.S.
So if this is the case, where does the American obsession with bad British teeth come from? (And for the record, it really is only you chaps who care for this — we don’t get mocked by the French or the Russians for them; mind you, their teeth look like broken dominoes frozen in chocolate pudding, so perhaps that’s why.)
“The cliché probably started in the 1920s,” says Atkins. “That’s when you had Hollywood coming to prominence around the world, and the big stars all had their teeth fixed with veneers or crowns. If you look, a lot of the British stars of that era had missing teeth. All this, of course, was seized upon by the marketing industry, where you can usually trace these modern myths to.”
Right on the back of the classic Hollywood era came the height of American advertising, which heavily marketed the idea of the all-American smile — and not just to sell toothpaste. “The idea of the American smile was preyed upon by dentists, who were, and still are, charging huge amounts of money for treatments in the U.S.,” says Atkins. “In the U.K., of course, it’s different. We have the NHS, which provides [normally free or low-cost] treatment for everyone. It’s not about making money.”
In other words, unlike in the U.S., basic dental care isn’t out of reach of the poor.
Around now, you’re probably asking how come my teeth — and many other British teeth you’ve seen — are so yellow and snaggly? Here’s the thing: It doesn’t necessarily follow that healthy teeth are straight, white teeth. “The natural color of teeth is actually more of a cream color, due to the dentine beneath the enamel,” explains Atkins. “And while crooked teeth may be harder to clean, yellow teeth aren’t necessarily uncared-for teeth. Skin tone can make a lot of difference to perceptions, too — your teeth can appear much whiter when you have darker skin, but they may not actually be that white.”
In fact, only cosmetic treatments can make teeth perfectly white. Treatments readily available to, say, Hollywood bigshots, who happen to be the most visible Americans worldwide, therefore perpetuating the myth of tooth perfection. Take a look around your local corner store, and it’s doubtful you’ll see shining rows of pure white teeth down every aisle.
Of course, self-esteem in Britain is low to start with, and all these movie stars flaunting their gleaming gnashers are starting to wear us down, making us more self-conscious about our teeth than ever before. That’s why whitening is turning into big business in the U.K. “It’s a confidence thing,” says Atkins. “You see the likes of David Beckham suddenly having great teeth, and you want it, too.”
The good news for those wanting whiter teeth? “Whitening has no detrimental effect on your teeth so long as it’s done by a qualified dentist, who are all now trained in cosmetic treatments,” says Atkins.
The bad news? According to a Mintel study from just last month, one in four single adults in the U.K. had undergone teeth-whitening treatments, but 45 percent of them had used an illegal provider. Rather than making an appointment with their dentist, they’d done it instead at a tanning salon or a beautician’s, a practice banned in the U.K. (This is no joke, either: The risks that go with this untrained treatment range from chemical burns to getting poisoned from swallowing bleach.) The Dickensian backstreet habits of Brits, it seems, are hard to shrug off.
Still, there are plenty of us Brits left with our naturally yellow, wonky, but stronger teeth, unwilling to succumb to the lure of minty-fresh American advertising. And while our teeth may not be as sexy as yours, at least they have integrity. That’s got to count for something, right?