Is Instagram bad for your teeth?

Those in search of the perfect smile need look no further than Instagram, but the rise of DIY whitening kits and unhealthy attitudes to dental care are worrying industry professionals

CONS: Instagram smiles are edited, unrealistic, and potentially downright dangerous

Instagram is to beauty ideals as fashion magazines and glossy advertisements were before it: sometimes a scapegoat, sometimes an arbiter, but undoubtedly a leader. Countless trends have begun and been shaped by Instagram and selfie culture, with perhaps the most pervasive being the perfect smile.

A cursory scroll through the average Instagram feed will throw up innumerable images of “piano-key” smiles from influencers and celebrities alike, their teeth unbelievably neat and white. On Instagram, where a megawatt smile appears, a promotional code for an at-home LED whitening kit or charcoal toothpaste is never far behind.

“I used to have people who would come in and say they wanted teeth like Kate Middleton or Margot Robbie,” says Dr Rhona Eskander, a cosmetic dentist. “But now they come and want to look like the filtered version of themselves: teeth very large, very white and very neat.”

The ability to manipulate images on Instagram through the use of so-called “pretty” filters or photo-editing apps such as FaceTune creates another hard-to-reach standard within the app itself. “The levels of perfection you can reach with one of those filters is startling,” adds Dr Eskander.

“The normalisation of very extreme beauty looks, such as a perfect, faultless smile, only serves to increase the capacity for dissatisfaction with yourself,” says Dr Melissa Atkinson, researcher in body image at the University of Bath. “There’s no way to reach these standards without resorting to extremes and the influence of these images is often subconscious.”

“The normalisation of extreme beauty only serves to increase the capacity for dissatisfaction”

It’s a viewpoint echoed by celebrated cosmetic dentist Dr Uchenna Okoye. “There’s an unhealthy obsession with so-called perfection,” she says. “With these apps, users have access to easy tools to whiten or reshape their teeth in ways that are unrealistic. Because it’s so visual, only the most perfect and pleasing images get shown, whereas we are imperfect people.”

The stars of Love Island, especially the crowned winners of the 2018 season Jack Fincham and Danielle “Dani” Dyer (2.5 million and 3.5 million followers apiece), are often cited as being smile-inspiration for the millennial set. “It’s a very obvious veneers look and I worry that young people are getting a very skewed idea of what is normal,” adds Dr Okoye.

Low selfie self-esteem and illegal at-home kits

Katherine Ormerod, influencer and author of Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life, says there’s an almost instantaneous reaction within us when taking selfies. “A 2017 study by Yonsei University [in Seoul, South Korea] showed that the actual act of snapping a selfie made people immediately more self-conscious and more aware of how others view them. Respondents also revealed a drop in self-esteem at the very moment of taking the image of themselves,” she says. All of which leaves users especially vulnerable to the hyper-edited images they see after posting their own.

Once the desire to have a perfect smile is so strong that not even FaceTune will scratch the itch, there are two choices: see a dentist or instead why not use the 20 per cent discount code your favourite influencer is offering on an at-home whitening kit? Kits offer an LED device that promises whitening without the sensitivity, while whitening hydrogen peroxide “gels” are easily purchased online.

“These at-home options are so dangerous,” cautions Dr Okoye. “In January, Amazon had to pull sales of their most popular whitening product, as it was found to contain banned chemicals which can be really damaging. The suggested ads and sponsored content on Instagram make it easier for people to find these kits which they might not otherwise.”

Dr Eskander adds: “You have no way of knowing if it’s even safe for you to do the whitening; your teeth and gums might need serious attention first. And that’s without mentioning that the strength could be perilously high.”

Buying a potentially illegal whitening kit – in the European Union, hydrogen peroxide strength is capped at 6 per cent compared with up to 35 percent elsewhere in the world – may sound extreme, but as Ms Ormerod notes: “Beauty standards which were once reserved for celebrities are now showcased by ‘normal’ people.’’

The dangers don’t stop there. Dr Eskander says she’s observed a worrying rise in the popularity of so-called “alternative” treatments. “There’s so much misinformation about fluoride that some people are buying non-fluoride toothpastes,” she says. “Charcoal toothpastes are very popular on Instagram and they do not work; likewise, coconut oil pulling does nothing.”

PROS: Dentists can use Instagram to make connections and influence people

Despite worrying trends, Instagram serves as a great resource for both education and connection. After all, it’s not just influencers and celebrities giving out cues; many dentists are garnering sizeable followings, too.

“In the past, if someone wanted a recommendation, they’d ask friends who their family dentist was and go to them. But now, it’s like Instagram makes us all family dentists,” observes Dr Eskander. “I often have patients who have followed me on Instagram for a long time and watch my Instagram stories daily who tell me they already feel like they know me. I like that patients can get a feel for me and my aesthetic before coming in.”

Dr Okoye is of a similar view. “I have so many direct messages with people I would not normally have met asking for advice which is positive,” she says. “I can educate and point them in the right direction, and I think that’s great for the profession and the nation’s health as a whole. It’s an easy way to educate and share knowledge.”

“When a patient comes in wanting me to improve their smile, it provides an opportunity to get them into good habits and oral health provides that foundation”

While in the past patients were limited to the dentist in their area, patients can now simply send a direct message or leave a comment for a dentist and get quick, easy information.

“It also helps people get an idea of a dentist’s work and vet them based on others’ experiences,” says Dr Eskander. “It promotes education about how much certain procedures cost, what they look like and how long they take.”

Using the desire for change as a way to promote healthy habits

If a celebrity dentist can lure people in with a dramatic transformation, they also have the space to pepper in hygiene advice among all the before-and-after images.

“I’ve always said that if I could invent a floss that whitens teeth, I would never need to advise anyone to floss again; the nation would be obsessed. When a patient comes in wanting me to improve their smile, it provides an opportunity to get them into good habits and oral health provides that foundation,” says Dr Okoye.

Dr Eskander sees the captions on Instagram as good ground for education. “If I post a smile makeover, I’m very upfront about how long it took, what the procedures I used were exactly, in the caption. I don’t want to misinform anyone,” she says.

Of course, low self-esteem or risk-taking behaviour doesn’t happen in a vacuum, even on Instagram.

“While the so-called ‘selfie mentality’ does crop up in research as having a negative impact on self-image, it’s important to account for individual differences,” says Dr Atkinson at the University of Bath. “People will be influenced by these images depending on how much they personally invest in a certain beauty standard and how much they compare themselves to others outside Instagram.”

As an education tool, both for practitioners and patients, Instagram’s benefits are unparalleled, giving dentists the opportunity to inform users about oral health and build a rapport. The detriments, both psychological and physical, are in no means limited to just the field of cosmetic dentistry. With the rise of body positivity and no-filter posting, we can only hope people will feel emboldened to smile without shame.