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Laser technology brightens up smiles

Dr. Philips in the News…

Newest development in teeth whitening has both fans and critics

Josie Buzzanca has a great smile, but it was only recently that she began to think so, too.

The 25-year-old Woodbridge woman said drinking coffee and tea, and the passage of time, had given her teeth a yellowish colour, and "it was noticeable. It bothered me."

So one month ago, she decided to spend $1,000 for a laser whitening treatment, a relatively new method of lightening teeth that takes about three hours and is, for the most part, painless.

"I deal with a lot of people, so my smile is important to me," said Buzzanca, who is an office manager.

The treatment, which has been used in Canada for about two years, is the newest development in whitening. While heralded by some, others urge caution because of potential risks.

laser whitening works like this: A protective covering (usually a rubber dam, wax or cotton rolls) is placed so that it covers the gums, tongue and cheeks, and the teeth are then painted with a special whitening gel. The laser, which looks like a pen, is then held in front of each tooth for about three minutes, and this is repeated about six or seven times per tooth.

"It is time consuming," admits Dr. Ed Philips, of The Studio For Aesthetic Dentistiy in the Ontario Hydro building at University Ave. and College St. Philips teaches cosmetic dentistry at University of Toronto.

"I usually book a patient in for the entire morning."

There’s no freezing involved, and the only side effect reported is a bit of sensitivity for a few hours afterward.

Following the laser treatment, patients should try to cut back on the main teeth stainers – coffee, tea, red wine and smoking – advises Andrea Radman of The Perfect Smile, a salons on Yonge St. just north of St. Clair Ave. that has had about 100 laser clients since it opened four months ago.

She’s what’s called a laser certified technician, which means she’s taken the two-day course required by the manufacturer for those who operate the laser.

Her background is in dental administration. The salon has two other certified technicians, one who’s a dental hygienist and the other a dental assistant.

To maintain the look, patients rely on at-home whitening kits, which can be used instead of the laser treatment to whiten stained teeth. The at-home kits have been used in Canada since the early ’90s, according to the Canadian Dental Association. They cost anywhere from $250 to $500.

A mold of the patient’s mouth is taken and plastic "trays" that have a vacuum-like seal are custom-made to fit over the teeth. All the patient has to do is put the whitening gel (usually carbamide peroxide) into the mold and then wear the mold for a few hours a day, as often as recommended.

Someone who’s had the laser whitening may only have to do this once or twice a year.

Penny Freedom, co-owner of The Smile Salon on Bay St. and Cumberland Ave., said her clients are anywhere from 32 to 70 years old.

"It’s not the rich who get this done, it’s very average people who don’t like their smile," she said.

Freedom, who’s been a dental hygienist for more than 30 years, said her salon has seen more than 200 patients since it opened in 1996. She’s found that the treatment is popular, especially among men.

"They want instant gratification. They don’t like the mess (of at-home kits). Women are used to cosmetics, we’ll do anything to help improve us. This is one thing men can do to change their look."

In general, "people like the technology" of laser whitening, "they like the long-lasting effect and generally don’t want to put solutions in their mouths more than they have to."

She said studies have indicated that teeth, after any type of laser treatment, are more resistant to decay and less sensitive.

While laser whitening maybe faster – the at-home treatments can take two weeks – and easier, the whitening gels are a concern for the Canadian Dental Association.

It has lobbied Health Canada since 1990 to regulate the oxidizing gels and liquids as "drugs" rather than "cosmetics" for stricter controls.

The association is concerned because there have been no long-term safety studies and warns that temporary damage can be done to soft tissue, and to the pulp of the teeth. It advises people use whiteners "selectively and carefully" and only under consultation with a dentist.

The treatment is hot right now because lasers are very hyped, he said, but he only uses it in a couple of cases: when patients have stubborn stains (such as those from medications) that just won’t come off with home whitening kits or when they need their teeth whitened quickly – "they come in and say, I know I should have done this months ago, but I’m getting married this Saturday."

Philips has done about 1,000 whitenings over the past four years. About 150 of those were done with laser, and he’s never had any problems with it, though he does warn that it is "more caustic, more powerful" and could cause damage if not done properly.

He also finds that "rebound" time- the time it takes before teeth naturally darken again, which will happen no matter what treatment is used – is much sooner with laser treatments, sometimes in as little as three months.

Radman at The Perfect Smile said results can last three to five years, and clients have a touch-up kit to fix any discolouration.

The total cost for laser whitening, including the at-home kits, runs from $900 to about $1200.