Reports of illegal teeth-whitening have increased by 26% in the last year, new figures show. The unregulated procedures can leave patients at risk of tooth loss, burns and blisters with more severe cases even becoming life-threatening if left in the wrong hands.
It comes at a time when cosmetic dentistry is more popular than ever, with the industry valued at £2.2bn in the UK alone according to a 2019 study by the Oral Health Foundation. In fact, the same company found that 45% of single UK adults have had illegal tooth-whitening. That is, tooth-whitening performed by someone not registered with the General Dental Council (GDC).
In the UK, teeth whitening can only be performed legally by professionals that are registered with the GDC, and training can take years. However, according to a BBC investigation, one beauty school in London has trained ‘thousands’ of beauticians in teeth-whitening courses that do not comply with the GDC’s requirements.
And despite beauticians being scammed themselves by companies that offer illegal training courses - of which, dentists warn there are many - they risk criminal penalty and an unlimited fine for performing unregulated teeth-whitening procedures.
You can be put in a life-threatening situation and someone not medically trained wouldn’t know how to deal with that
‘Anybody, apparently, can get trained in it. I’m not sure if they even need beauty qualifications to do it,’ Dr. Safa Al-Naher, clinic lead at Care Dental Platinum, tells Grazia. ‘That’s really dangerous because we’re working with bleach essentially – dentally formulated bleach for teeth. And the danger with that is, it can cause an allergic reaction and if that happens you can be put in a potentially life-threatening situation and these people who are not medically trained wouldn’t know how to deal with that – that’s the worst case scenario.’
According to Dr Al-Naher, more common things that can go wrong include burns to the lips, destroyed gums or ulcers that can develop into infections. ‘Teeth-whitening gel has to be prescribed and you have to be a dentist to get the reputable companies,’ Dr. Al-Naher says. ‘But obviously, anyone can get anything on the internet and so [with illegal teeth-whitening] you can’t be sure what type of gel their using - you don’t actually know what’s in it, what they’ve added to it or the strength.
‘We have really strict rules in the EU about what strength of dental bleach you can use, so there’s a whole host of things that can go wrong,’ she contiued.
So why are people so likely to go to a beautician or someone not registered with the GDC? For Dr. Al-Naher, it’s all about price and ease. ‘To see a dentist in the first place you need to have a full check-up, and to have teeth whitening you need to make sure your teeth are healthy. If you have cavities or gum disease or anything you can really cause yourself problems,’ she says. ‘When people come to see me they’ve paid for a full check-up and x-rays; then the teeth-whitening itself is at least five times more expensive at a dentist.’
It’s perhaps unsurprising given the rise in beauticians offering all kinds of cosmetic procedures, and the Love Island face more popular than ever. Today, you can find a beautician offering fillers, Botox or teeth-whitening with a quick scroll on Instagram. That, Dr. Al-Naher says, is at the heart of the problem.
‘It’s something we’re really struggling with in the industry because we’re correcting [the bad work],’ she says. ‘And we’re so heavily regulated by the GDC so if we do anything out of place, if we offer teeth whitening in the wrong way, that’s our profession on the line - but these people will have never even known about [the regulations].’
It seems, then, that the pursuit of the Love Island smile is doing more than just denting our budgets (and self-esteem). It can hold real risks and can cause long-lasting damage. And Dr. Al-Naher agrees. ‘Love Island is a massive influence on this, as is social media in general too. It’s becoming such a big thing on Instagram to have great teeth. Young people - and even older people - they come in just wanting a fresher smile, and teeth-whitening is one of the easiest ways to achieve that.’
To find out more about getting your teeth-whitened legally, you can check Dr. Al-Naher's clinic out here. You can also search the GDC register here to check if your dental professional is registered with them.
To watch the BBC documentary of illegal teeth-whitening, click here.