This story was originally published December 1, 2018.
If you want to win a round of 20 Questions every time, pick an influencer. Their feeds, in essence their "lives," are virtually indistinguishable from one another — a swirl of status symbol after status symbol, from Gucci loafers to Emirates flights to summers spent at the Hamptons Revolve house. But set all the stuff aside for a second, and there's another thing that separates an Instagram powerhouse from any of the cute girls you went to college with: the teeth.
It's not just that they're a level of opaque white you'd never be able to achieve without developing severe sensitivities to cold liquids, it's that in many cases, they're missing sharp canines and also free of the normal wear-and-tear ridges that come with being an adult human who sometimes bites down on Jolly Ranchers or stress-grinds during family visits.
But don't take my word for it. Go search a former Bachelor contestant. Now search another. Might as well do a third, just to be sure. Chips, gaps, discoloration, crookedness... these things doesn't exist in the smiles of those who have follower counts in the hundreds of thousands, and it's not because they all had braces as kids and religiously wear their retainers.
"Everyone in Hollywood has veneers," says aesthetic dentist Sivan Finkel, DMD, of The Dental Parlour in NYC. "The first thing that happens when someone starts their career and moves out to LA is their agent tells them, 'You've gotta get veneers now.' I do a lot of work on up-and-coming people, or people who think they're up and coming, because they're competing with everyone who has quote-unquote perfect teeth."
And in the digital age, "in Hollywood" encompasses not just those with a 90210-adjacent zip code, but anyone whose #liketkit posts you regularly see on the Instagram explore page. You no longer have to live in a major hub and appear on Getty Images to experience a level of celebrity status. But not all the perks of social media stardom come free of risk — there's a dark side behind all those bright smiles.
Amber Fillerup Clark, of the wildly successful Barefoot Blonde blog and hair extensions line, lives in Arizona and has been open about her veneers, posting on Snapchat about the decision to get them last year, but the vast majority of influencers are less forthcoming. I reached out to over a dozen bloggers and reality TV stars — some of whom have admitted to their dental work, like Robby Hayes of The Bachelorette season 12 — and nearly all declined to participate in this story. Despite the increased demand dentists are reporting, it seems there's still a stigma around having "fake teeth."
That's partly because many still look, well, fake. According to cosmetic dentist Michael Apa, DDS, of Rosenthal Apa Group in NYC, "What's happening now in the dental industry is every dentist is catching on that the best way to market people is to do an influencer. So now these influencers are getting a thousand requests from dentists saying, 'Let me fix your teeth,' and the influencers are going in and thinking, 'Oh, free veneers!' And unfortunately, a lot of that work is horrible."
Like with plastic surgery, the best veneers are undetectable. "Bad ones look too opaque, too white, too smooth… they have all these characteristics that real teeth don’t have," says Dr. Finkel. "Good veneers have the texture, the translucency, and the irregularity of a real tooth." The problem is, those take a ton of time, money, and skill to make — and most dentists don't have the training or patience for it.
"Cosmetic dentistry is not a recognized specialty by the American Dental Association, so basically anyone can open their practice and do this type of dentistry," says Dr. Apa. "It's the most lucrative form of dentistry and the most rewarding, so everyone wants to do it, but going to a general dentist for veneers is like going to your general physician for a facelift because he took a weekend course and offers them now. Not that many people are really, really good at this work, and that's why you see the horror stories."
Lifestyle blogger Marianna Hewitt doesn't have veneers, but says she's been approached "for everything from [free] teeth whitening and cleaning to veneers and Invisalign." Many of her peers give in, she thinks, because "we constantly see ourselves in pictures and videos and notice flaws in HD. I totally get how you can start having a complex about how your teeth stack up to other people's smiles." Negative comments play a role, too: "If you have a million followers and people are commenting about your teeth, eventually you might start thinking, is something wrong with them? — even if you never thought that before."
In Hewitt's opinion, being offered free dental work should be viewed as a red flag. "I've seen some influencers get free veneers that ended up looking not-so-natural and they had to go back and spend money a second time to get them fixed. I know some very amazing and talented dentists who give a discount, but I do not know any quality dentist who is doing veneers 100% for free," she says.
On Instagram, it's hard for the layperson to know what a quality dentist looks like. "It's a double-edged sword," says Dr. Finkel, because on one hand, respectable doctors finally have a platform to display their work to a larger audience and interact with potential patients and their peers in the field; on the other, "a lot of dentists who shouldn't be doing this work buy followers now and become famous. Some of the work [on Instagram] is so beautiful, but most of it still looks like Chiclets." It's alarming, he notes, how many young people who don't need them are getting veneers done by people who are misrepresenting themselves as experts. "There aren't enough ethics in the profession," he says.
To the millennial generation, the temptation of veneers is that they're often seen as an instant fix that allows you to go straight to a selfie-perfect smile in a few appointments. And it's true, says Dr. Apa, that they can do just about anything, including closing gaps, whitening discoloration, fixing evidence of grinding, making teeth longer or shorter, widening smiles, and straightening crookedness, but they're rarely a necessity for young people. While veneers and caps are the only solution for broken, ground, or short teeth, most of the other issues they address can be met with alternative methods like braces, Invisalign, or whitening treatments — but at the cost of investing much more time, which is a bigger inconvenience than ever in the Instagram age. It's up to the dentist and the patient to determine whether veneers are the most appropriate route — and it's no small decision.
For one thing, veneers are irreversible — though the teeth are (or should be, in a responsible world) shaved down only .3 to .5 tenths of a millimeter versus 2.5 to 3 mm for a crown, there's no going back once you do that. But they're also not permanent, meaning that you'll have to replace them in 15 to 20 years, and that's if you care for them properly. And if you want a level of white you can't get from toothpaste alone, then you'll have to commit to bleaching the natural teeth around the veneer(s) for life to maintain uniform whiteness or opt for a more complete set — which will cost you big bucks. Dr. Finkel says that the price of an average single veneer in New York City is $2,000; Dr. Apa charges roughly $3,500 to $4,000 each, putting a full set at around $80,000.
But for those who have done the research and found an expert in cosmetic dentistry who advises that veneers are the right solution, "it's a great time to be alive," says Dr. Finkel. "Veneers are stronger and thinner than ever before, which means less drilling from the front of the teeth. It lets us sleep comfortably at night now after doing treatments on younger people."
DJ Duffey, French Montana's DJ and former Basketball Wives cast member, is one influencer who's been open with her followers about her smile transformation (which she got for free in exchange for promotion before appearing on the reality show). "Being in the music and television industry, your image is very important," she says. "Fans almost expect you to have nice teeth if they are going to sit and watch you entertain with your mouth." Duffey calls the decision "life-changing" and believes her new teeth have gotten her more exposure, but warns that it's "important to pick the right dentist when it comes to making such a big decision [because] one stereotype is that your teeth will come out looking like horse teeth."
New York City beauty editor Maddie Aberman went to Dr. Finkel to fix what years of grinding had done to her already small teeth (she later wrote about the experience for Allure) and echoes how crucial it is to not jump into the chair of any old dentist. "Being in the beauty industry did give me access to find the best cosmetic dentists and the knowledge to ask the right questions, but I didn't feel pressure to have perfect teeth just because I'm in the industry," she says. In fact, she didn't want perfect teeth. "They have all the little quirks that make real teeth look real, and that was the goal from the beginning. If someone has good veneers, you shouldn't be able to tell they have them at all."
Dr. Finkel has hope that the Barbie teeth stigma associated with veneers is on its way out and that the future will be a little more imperfect. "People are smarter than what they see on Instagram and they come to us as experts to guide them to the most appropriate solution," he says. "Then it's our responsibility to know when veneers are right and when to walk away from a lot of money. Rule number one as a doctor is do no harm."
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