Power of a winning smile

The cosmetic dentistry business has weathered the storm of the recession well as patients prioritise good oral hygiene and a subtle smile aesthetic. Bella Blissett reports on the social and technological shifts driving the industry

The British stereotype may be one of poor dental aesthetics and oral hygiene but, in a world of struggling markets, the dental industry has proven to be surprisingly resilient as the public reassesses its priorities.

According to Mintel, the number of cosmetic dentistry procedures carried out in the UK between 2008 and 2010 increased by 33.5 per cent from 223,929 to 298, 868. Yet while we are willing to invest in our teeth, there has been a marked shift in the type of treatments we are spending on. Prevention and at-home regimes are more of a priority, and it is all about straightening and whitening rather than veneers and implants. ABB – alignment using simple braces to straighten teeth, bleaching and bonding with materials to shape teeth – is the industry’s current buzz phrase when it comes to meeting patient demands.

“The clinics that have faired best during the recession are those that place an equal importance upon preventative health and cosmetic treatments, improving both the functionality and appearance of teeth,” says Bertrand Napier, communications director of the British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (BACD). “A consumer desire for instant ‘smile makeovers’ has been rivalled by a desire for simple, economical solutions such as cleaning, polishing, whitening and gum-disease prevention”.

Along with financial considerations, it is changing cultural aesthetics that are driving this trend. In a shift that is mirrored by the cosmetic surgery industry, patients are rejecting the cliched notion of “ten years younger” in favour of looking like themselves, albeit in a subtly enhanced version. Our appearance has become the new social currency and conforming to an understated, more tasteful beauty ideal is all-important. As a result, minimally invasive dentistry that celebrates the in-built imperfections of the individual is the new industry ideal.

Recent months have seen a growing trend in invisible orthodontics and lingual braces that allow us to improve our smile in a way that remains our little secret. “Rapid, removable orthodontic systems such as the Inman Aligner are seen as ‘recession-busting’ treatments in that they offer a time and cost-effective method of correcting rather than masking misalignment, offering natural results in as little as six to 16 weeks rather than the 18-month treatment time of traditional braces,” says Tim Bradstock-Smith, cosmetic dentist and director of The London Smile Clinic.

Complicated procedures can now be performed simply, quickly and with the minimum amount of discomfort

Martin Raymond, strategy and insight director of The Future Laboratory, believes this comparatively measured approach correlates with a consumer desire for authenticity, value for money and long-term benefits across all other lifestyle sectors. “The digital age has given rise to the ‘social CV’,” he says. “Customers are now able to evaluate brands and individual practitioners based upon blogs, social-media testimonials and search engine results. Today’s cautious consumer is willing to spend, but only if they trust the outcome.”

The availability of information online has led to what Dr Bradstock-Smith refers to as an ever-increasing “Dental IQ” among patients. The knock-on effect is elevated consumer expectations that ensure the quality of cosmetic dentistry in the UK remains high. As for the global landscape, he believes that the American industry’s failure to offer more low-cost, conservative dentistry has been its downfall during the recession. Germany continues to lead the market in innovative invisible braces and demand for these orthodontic systems has grown significantly in Asia. For the UK clinics that can keep pace with our own desire for subtly enhanced, healthy smiles, the outlook for the future is good.

“The use of advanced digital technologies means complicated procedures can now be performed simply, quickly and with the minimum amount of discomfort. This is an attractive proposition for the time and money-short consumer who places a high value on preserving their natural teeth and safeguarding their long-term health,” says Mr Napier. “As long as there are people, there will always be a market for cosmetic dentistry.”

That said, one point experts across the industry are agreed upon is that financial restrictions combined with increasingly sophisticated technology, shifting cultural ideals and an ever-more knowledgeable consumer means that we are now entering the age of the savvy smile makeover.