SINGAPORE - Cosmetic dentistry is in great demand as increasingly affluent Singaporeans choose expensive procedures that fix nature's flaws in days or weeks.
But not everyone who wants a better smile does it for pure vanity's sake. For some patients, cosmetic dentistry can confer greater functionality and be a great confidence booster.
Retiree Yap Lee Choo, 65, was always conscious of her missing teeth when she smiled and how the ones that remained were worn out and stained. Some of her fillings were also broken.
All that changed when she had extensive work done at a dental clinic that gave her an improved smile and made it easier to care for her teeth.
Mrs Yap spent more than $10,000 on teeth whitening, veneers and crowns. A veneer is a thin shell of porcelain bonded to a tooth to change its shape, size and colour, while a crown is a type of dental restoration that caps a tooth.
The treatment made an immense difference to her life.
"I used to be very embarrassed to smile. Even if I did, I would never show my teeth. I never dreamt that I could own such teeth," said Mrs Yap.
Now that her teeth are straighter, brushing has also become easier and her overall oral hygiene has improved.
It is not known how much Singaporeans are spending on cosmetic dentistry but dental clinics report a rise in demand of 25to 50 per cent in the last five years.
There are now 230 dentists who are members of the Aesthetic Dentistry Society Singapore (ADSS), which organises aesthetic dentistry educational events for members and works to raise public awareness about the various types of cosmetic dental treatment available.
Membership in the ADSS has almost doubled in the last five years, from about 120 members in 2008, said its president, DrGerald Tan. He noted a similar increase in the number of dentists attending aesthetic dentistry courses here and overseas.
Cosmetic dentistry focuses on improving the appearance of a person's gums and teeth to result in a pleasing smile. This could be a whiter and brighter smile, straighter teeth or a more symmetrical gumline.
Dr Eugene Tang of Aesthetic Dental Care said aesthetic dentistry includes orthodontic treatment to correct the alignment of the teeth or jaw, bleaching or whitening of teeth to improve colour harmony, using crowns and veneers to improve the shade and contour of teeth, as well as implants to fill up gaps between the teeth.
Dental clinics say they get patients of all ages now and though the majority tend to be women, more men are also asking for cosmetic enhancements.
"More people want to look younger and cosmetic dentistry is like a 'dental facelift' that can quickly reverse the natural ageing process of the teeth," said Dr Tan.
Ageing causes the tooth enamel to be worn away, revealing the dentine, the yellowish inner layer of the teeth. Carbonated or citrus drinks, such as cola or lemon juice, can also wear off the enamel. Smoking and drinking coffee can stain the teeth.
Dr Tan noted that a dentist may refer a patient to a dermatologist or plastic surgeon to further improve the appearance of his made-over smile. For example, dermal fillers may be recommended to remove facial lines.
Customers say that a lovely smile makes a lasting impression, an asset in many jobs.
For instance, as an advertising director for a men's magazine, Mr Raphael Chong meets a lot of people and does a lot of talking.
"A good impression definitely counts," said the 35-year-old. "Other than a great personality, I feel that the two other things that will help edge out the competition is good dress sense and a nice smile."
In 2006, he got his first set of veneers to lengthen his teeth - which were a little short because he ground them in his sleep - and whiten them.
He would not say how much he spent but clinics in central locations such as Orchard Road charge $1,500 to $3,000 per veneer.
Furthermore, he had to replace some of his new "teeth" last year because he continued to grind his teeth and wore them down. Now, he wears his mouth guard religiously.
Said Mr Chong, who is married: "I think I made a very rational decision that would serve me well for many more awesome years to come. Till today, people still comment on my teeth. They say how white and perfectly aligned they are."
Indeed, people are less embarrassed now to have attention drawn to the work on their teeth, said Dr Thean Tsin Piao of Aesthete Smilestudio.
He said: "People are more open because everyone is doing it and there is awareness that many are undergoing such treatment. For some patients, aesthetic dentistry is also the first step towards plastic surgery."
People are more willing to have major work done in their mouths, including having their gums reshaped with a laser, because there is awareness that a smile is "the most dominant feature of the face", said Dr Tan.
For men, it is also seen as a less feminine way to enhance one's look, as opposed to doing facial cosmetic work, said Dr Ernest Rex Tan of Smile Inc Dental Surgeons.
Dr Tang added that results now are more predictable and straightforward, and patients are more assured of a good outcome.
Although the cheapest treatment, whitening, starts at about $300, and expensive veneers can easily top $20,000 or more, people are well able to afford them these days, said dentists.
However, dentists advise patients to do their research before embarking on any procedure.
Quick-fix treatments are generally not recommended, said Dr Bruce Lee, clinical director of the T32 Dental Centre.
One example is Instant Braces, which promise straighter teeth in a few weeks compared to the two years usually needed for orthodontics.
To achieve this, the teeth are trimmed and filed down, and fitted with dental veneers and crowns. In some cases, nerves may even be selectively removed.
While all this leads to a straighter set of teeth, they are weakened and destroyed, which may give problems down the road.
"We always advise patients to 'bank' their teeth for the future. We should almost always opt for the most conservative and least invasive method or technique to achieve the best aesthetic results," said Dr Lee.
To prevent the need for aesthetic dental work, one should practise good dental habits from young, said Dr Ernest Rex Tan.
This means visiting a dentist every six months, brushing the teeth regularly and flossing daily. Problems such as crooked teeth should also be addressed with braces between the ages of 11 and 18, he said.
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