If, once upon a time, going to the dentists was routine at best, your local dental practice is on the way to becoming something of a destination. At the same time, previously unglamorous dental products such as toothpaste, toothbrushes and mouthwash are more likely to be deemed worthy of a bathroom shelfie posted to Instagram. Teeth – and the right products and treatments for them – are now part of the self-care beauty boom.
There’s even been a rebranding of the sector. The dental aisle in your local chemist could soon be renamed “oralcare”. A recent article in Business of Fashion used this term and estimated that US consumers spent $9bn on oralcare in 2020. Cassandra Grey, the founder of beauty website Violet Grey, went as far as to say: “Teeth have become the new boob job.” Sales of oralcare on the site increased by 33% in 2020.
Spotlight, Kendall Jenner’s Moon, Better & Better and Swiss vVardis – which charges $55 for toothpaste – are some of the buzz brands. Colgate has also seen a gap in the market. It launched Co.Colgate in the US, a range of products designed to appeal to a younger, fashionable consumer, without any of the familiar red and white logo. Instead, branding is close to that of cult beauty brand Glossier. Included in the range is a teeth whitening pen called It’s Lit.
While some might balk at the idea of $55 for toothpaste, and even £9.95 for Moon toothpaste is triple the price of most on the market, it means young people can enter this aspirational new beauty world for the price of a high street dress. Along with shelfie-worthy packaging, they might be swayed by the growing niche of dentists turned dental influencers with large followings on Instagram, and videos on TikTok with people testing out blue-light products to whiten teeth. There are more than 680k videos on the app tagged #teethwhiteningchallenge.
Dr Uchenna Okoye appeared on shows including 10 Years Younger. She now has about 12k followers on Instagram, and says she is “honoured” to be considered a dental influencer. Anna Middleton, whose handle is @londonhygienist, has 13.k followers and says she gained 3.5k since last year. Both emphasise they use social media to debunk the fear around going to the dentists. “I regularly promote oral health messages, share information about the latest science and use my personality to break the mould and stereotype around dental professionals to show we are gentle and caring,” says Middleton.
The increasing interest in oralcare can be traced back to the rise of Zoom in the pandemic. “Zoom has been amazing for our industry,” Okoye says. “People are staring at themselves and they see angles, like the side view of their face, what other people see of them.” This backs up Grey’s assertion – with so much focus on neck-up appearance, it makes sense that consumers are spending money on teeth.
Cosmetic dentistry, which can cost thousands of pounds, is part of a wider aspiration towards a polished appearance. Okoye sees it alongside the rise of “tweakments” like Botox. “As a nation, we Brits are uber conservative, so it’s not a case of ‘let me go and have a facelift’,” she says. “It’s all under the table ‘what can we get away with, without people realising we have been done?’” According to Okoye, the most unlikely dental treatments – braces – are becoming status symbols. She points to the tracks of Invisalign, the premium braces brand with transparent, gumshield-like aligners: “Everyone showed off their Chanel [handbag], they’e now showing their Invisalign.”
Jacqueline Kilikita, the beauty editor of Refinery29, says “teeth are no longer seen as the unglamorous topic in beauty … Oralcare is now up there with luxury beauty such as skincare, haircare and makeup.”
She adds that – as with denim – there’s a generational divide. With millennials, the interest in oralcare comes from seeing stars with bight white teeth on reality shows including Made in Chelsea and Love Island, and “it’s also down to our coffee addiction!” For Gen Z, TikTok videos are more influential – and demonstrate a move away from bright white smiles, the ones that saw consumers use dangerous – and sometimes illegal – whitening products. “I have seen memes and TikTok videos criticising influencers with blindingly white teeth,” says Kilikita. “Now, it’s all about being realistic and looking real.”
Okoye concurs with this. “In the old days, people would come in [to her practice] clutching pictures of Angelina Jolie’s smile, saying ‘can you make me look like this’,” she says. “Now people are coming to me because my signature smile has always been to look like yourself but better.” Middleton adds that, as with the “skintellectual” demographic which prides itself on a technical knowledge of active ingredients in night cream, consumers are becoming better informed. “The aesthetic side of my work has always been popular but patients are increasingly becoming more aware of the deeper links between oral health and systemic health,” she says.
Brands are addressing other concerns of Gen Z – such as activism, the environment and veganism. Co.Colgate’s slogan – “Smile boldly, speak up louder, live your truth more boldly” – feels as if it has been through various focus groups with the under-25s. Better & Better’s packaging is Insta-friendly and uses minimal plastic. By Humankind has reinvented toothpaste into pills, which are dispensed into glass jars. And The White Teeth Box, founded by firefighter Luke Wright in 2018, aims to be plastic-free and vegan, with natural whitening products such as charcoal powder a bestseller.
“We started with bamboo toothbrushes because every single plastic toothbrush that has ever been made is still somewhere on the planet,” he says. “We then went to biodegradable floss, and other products … we are vegan, and as plastic-free and biodegrade as possible, and natural.” He does, however, admit there are limits. “There is no real completely plastic-free alternative in toothbrush bristles, except boar hair,” he says “No one is quite ready to put boar hair in their mouths just yet.”