The power of a smile

Alice Hart-Davis explores the concept of the perfect smile and asks why teeth are so important in modern culture?

If you had interviewed people 20 years ago about their smile, I am not sure they would have understood the question, at least, not in the way that we do today. As a nation, we used to be downright suspicious of anyone with anything resembling a gleaming, big-toothed Hollywood smile. But how times change.

According to a recent YouGov survey, 45 per cent of adults in the UK are unhappy with their smile, 56 per cent would consider treatment to improve their teeth and some 25 per cent make a direct link between their teeth and self-esteem.

Along with a general improvement in grooming – paying closer attention to our hair, nails, skincare and wardrobe – we are much keener on brushing up the look of our teeth. We don’t want suspiciously perfect, but we want better, and our views of what constitutes the perfect smile have evolved too.

“UK dentistry went through a phase of patients wanting big white smiles but to me, a perfect smile is when everything is balanced and in proportion, and suits the individual,” says Dr Mervyn Druian of the London Centre for Cosmetic Dentistry.

Tim Bradstock-Smith of the London Smile Clinic has noticed this shift too. “Gone are the days when patients ask me for a beaming white Hollywood smile,” he says. “Now, a ‘perfect’ smile is one that is clean and healthy with bright and natural-looking teeth.”

A perfect smile is when everything is balanced and in proportion

Apparently it is all in the detail and it is a look Dr Bradstock-Smith calls “imperfect/perfect”. “Natural teeth have highly complex surface anatomy, texture, colour variation, translucency and all sorts of imperfections,” he explains. “We won’t mimic the unsightly flaws, but we like to keep some ‘perfect imperfections’ in there.”

Achieving this look means less indiscriminate use of veneers and a more thoughtful approach involving restoration and orthodontics, adjusting teeth with braces or the new breed of fast-acting invisible aligners, along with whitening.

That people will judge you by your smile is now a given. “We live in a society where first impressions count,” says Dr Uchenna Okoye, who runs the London Smiling clinics. “Today, your smile is an accessory. Research has shown that people who have great smiles are thought to be more intelligent, better educated and more successful than people with bad teeth.”

Smiles are powerful when it comes to business. “In terms of fast-track bonding and rapport-building in business, they are as important as a handshake,” says body language expert Judi James.

People might think that cosmetic dentistry is only for celebs but, as Dr Okoye points out, a smile is a tool that we use for better communication. “One thing that has changed greatly in the past ten years is that anyone who is front-facing, whether they have a job in sales or are teaching, wants something extra to help them make a good impression,” she says. “I’ve seen a huge increase in patients who are afraid of losing their job to someone younger. Once their smile is improved, they look younger, feel better and are more confident.”

Dr Susan Tanner, of Dawood and Tanner, a practice that specialises in complex implants, knows well the more far-reaching consequences of dental work. “We see this sort of blossoming transformation nearly every day,” she says. “When we give someone back the confidence to smile, whether by eliminating a stained filling in a front tooth or by giving them a full arch of implant restorations, it seems to transform the way they use their facial muscles. It is a great source of pleasure to us. I can’t tell you how many times patients come back after treatment having reinvented themselves. It sounds like a cliche, but we really do have patients who have married, got the new job or even started a singing career after dental work.”

A survey carried out by toothpaste maker Biorepair revealed that Britons smile, on average, 26 times a day – that’s around half a million smiles in our adult lifetime – but that almost half of those smiles are false. But can we spot the real from the fake? “There are always some charmers who employ their skills for coercion and manipulation,” says Ms James. “When someone has a good smile, we are hardwired to sustain that facial expression, just as we are to keep a small child looking happy. If someone has been performing genuine-looking smiles in a transaction we might feel pressured to keep them happy, even if it means negotiating a ‘lose’ for ourselves.”

Our smiles might be changing for the better, but human nature changes little. You have been warned. Keep smiling – but keep your wits about you.