Teeth heading toward a paler shade of white

Teeth are now preternaturally, blindingly white. Everyone, it seems, from actors on the big screen to the 19-year-old barista with the dazzling grin is fueling the $1 billion-plus-a-year whitening industry.

According to the American Dental Association, whitening is now the most requested procedure at a dentist's office. These days, in some circles, it's not a question of whether your teeth have been whitened, but by how much.

“In the early days of whitening, we didn't take (teeth) that white, but now that everyone's doing it, it's a bit of keeping up with the Joneses,” explains Dr. Marty Zase, past president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. “People see their friends or co-workers with white teeth, and they want theirs to be even whiter.”

I didn't need Dr. Zase to tell me this. I was recently having a cocktail with a chic acquaintance. When the fashionista flashed her ivories, it was as if she had turned on a florescent light bulb. Her teeth are a shade of white not even found in the Arctic. I had to fight the urge to stare in amazement.

I was too polite to say it to her face, but I'm not too polite to say it in print. Teeth should resemble a color found in nature, not the xenon headlights that blind me as I drive. I'm nostalgic for the days when a television anchor could look like she smoked two packs of Kools a day and still get a job outside of Schenectady. This super whitening is like Botox for teeth: It's obvious you've had work done.

”I'm addicted,” 33-year-old Back Bay resident Patricia Farmer confessed to me. “I started with Whitestrips, moved on to gels, mouthwashes, and then started getting it professionally done.”

She falls into the category that Dr. Zase describes as “people who aren't happy until their teeth look like a porcelain toilet bowl.” The rule of thumb for whitening is that a person's teeth should be no brighter than the whites of their eyes, according to Zase. That way the focus stays on the eyes, not on the mouth.

Leslie Faust, the CEO of GoSmile, a company that makes high-end teeth whitening products, says the majority of its customers want teeth that are as white as possible.

”These days there's almost no such thing as too white,” Faust says. “It's just like, can you have too few wrinkles?”

The demand for extra bright teeth is the reason BriteSmile, a teeth whitening spa with 16 locations around the country does brisk business despite the $600 price tag.

“A lot of people will get as white as they can with Whitestrips, and then they'll come to us,” says Dr. Sherry Padgett of BriteSmile.

And it's not just singles and corporate types whitening up for the big date or meeting. Padgett says BriteSmile's customers run from teens to adults, and the slowing economy has not slowed demand for services. A growing number of people who are whitening are grandparents.

”They'll say that their grandchildren told them that their teeth look like corn,” Padgett says.

If I encountered an ungrateful little brat who told me I had corn teeth, I'd promptly tell her that Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy had been in an unfortunate helicopter accident, and that there would be no more gifts on major holidays. Ever.

And then I'd spend that gift money on getting my teeth whitened.