News + Issues

Social media’s impact on dental inequality

Long before Photoshop and Instagram filters, ancient civilizations enhanced their smiles the old-fashioned way. The Mayans filled holes in their teeth with jade, Etruscans perfected rudimentary golden grills, and Egyptians crushed rock, mint and dried iris flower to create the world’s oldest identified toothpaste. A growing number of Americans now turn to social media for the latest dental trends and cosmetic treatments. Like our ancestors, our contemporary cravings for aesthetic dentistry arise from social norms and a societal obsession with perfection. Trends such as at-home whitening kits, the veneers check and charcoal toothpaste have captivated social media, where influencers and celebrities alike upload their vogue-ish oral care routines. A deeper look into several trending dental topics exposes underlying issues in social media inequality and dental misinformation. 

At-home whitening kits

Scrolling through the hashtag #teethwhitening on TikTok reveals hundreds of videos with a collective 1.3 billion views. Influencers like Dixie D’Amelio show off their “Hollywood smiles” made possible by sponsors such as Crest and their at-home whitening lights. These portable kits have an obvious appeal: They promise an experience that looks like what dentists offer, at a fraction of the cost. As a bonus, users can take advantage of the convenience of at-home treatments rather than making several trips to their dentist. 

However, studies show that these systems have unreliable results and even cause mouth and gum irritation. Unaware consumers, though, may choose these more cost-friendly options without consulting their dentist. This choice could worsen prevalent dental issues in these disadvantaged populations and intensify disparities in care. 

“Veneers check”

False teeth are so embedded in American cultural lore that schoolchildren learn about George Washington’s wooden set (though his dentures were likely a combination of human teeth, ivory and gold metal wire.) Today’s celebrities upgrade their smiles with full-mouth dentures and porcelain veneers that can cost thousands of dollars. Many Instagram influencers endorse these cosmetic procedures and document the before and after of their dental work. These “veneers check” promoters often visit equally famous celebrity dentists that cater to an elite clientele. The resulting comparison photos show what is possible, yet they repeatedly depict influencers who started with good teeth. 

Artificially perfect teeth have become a status symbol on social media. Meanwhile, many low-income American adults avoid smiling due to poor oral health. Trends such as the “veneers check” overlook inequalities in oral health and dental access. Instead, social media reinforces socio-economic factors that determine which patients deserve the priceless joy of a clean, pain-free smile.

Charcoal toothpaste

Like the Egyptians, we want the most efficient formula to brush our teeth. Current toothpaste designs began in the 1950s with the addition of fluoride. A miracle mineral in cavity prevention, fluoride additives now compete against less studied inventions such as charcoal and CBD toothpaste. Whereas iris flower trended thousands of years ago, charcoal is the current dental hygiene fad. 

Charcoal has undeniable roles in poisoning and overdose, but no definitive data supports its use in oral health. The American Dental Association examined all charcoal toothpaste research and reported it is abrasive and may disrupt the protective enamel layer on our teeth. Still, charcoal toothpaste has an incessant presence on social media, which results in a sense of authority. When influencers promote “more natural” charcoal toothpaste despite lack of scientific support, they are putting their followers’ oral health at risk. 

High-end cosmetic dentistry is a billion-dollar industry, and it is rapidly growing. Wealthy Americans drop thousands of dollars to whiten and shape teeth to their liking. Millions of other patients rely on charity clinics, at-home treatments, or outright extractions to treat neglected and painful teeth. Poor oral health, in turn, makes it nearly impossible for underserved communities to achieve economic mobility. Studies show that people with imperfect teeth are stigmatized, and employers prefer to hire those with physically appealing smiles. These physical prejudices manifest into assumptions regarding intelligence, cleanliness, and mental stability and further complicate peoples’ lives.

Social and financial success is associated with a full mouth of straight, white teeth — just about every popular creator on social media has them. When these influencers promote dental trends such as those discussed above, they mislead their audiences and fail to paint the complete picture of their expensive dental care. Instead, influencers trigger unrealistic expectations and neglect the importance of preventative dentistry. This puts pressure on regular users to seek the same aesthetic standards. Socio-economic limitations, however, dictate who can access efficient cosmetic enhancements.

Online social media platforms offer an undeniably fantastic forum for advancing oral health access. However, with dental professionals overshadowed by unqualified bloggers and social media stars, dental misinformation continues to circulate. While a warm smile is one of the first things you notice when you meet a new person, the choice to enhance it — or not — should not stem from unattainable social media standards.

~Katherine Burkett, Louisiana ’25, Chapter Fundraising Committee Member

Katherine Burkett

Katherine Burkett is a first-year dental student at LSU School of Dentistry. She finds purpose in spreading political awareness and promoting dental access. Outside of class, she enjoys spending time with her cat, cooking new recipes and exploring New Orleans.

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