The future’s so bright: The author wearing whitening gear. He has already scored a second date. Jonathan Zizzo

Personalities

Will Teeth Whitening Raise Your Social Stock?

I went on a quest to find out.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear from the jump: I brush my teeth. Twice each day. I’m not an animal. As far as I know, no one has ever even made as much as an offhand remark suggesting I have bad teeth. But then I suppose that is just as far as I know. And a question that I don’t recommend anyone ask himself is “Are my teeth 100 percent as white as they could possibly be?” Because if the answer isn’t yes, then good luck thinking about anything else every time you’re in front of a mirror.

As a writer, I spend anywhere from three to six hours every day in coffee shops, staining my teeth with dark roast. So, sure, my teeth could probably be a little whiter. My regular spot has long been the spacious West Village Starbucks, where the clientele flaunts a type of attractiveness that’s the product of some combination of unjust, God-given genetics and a lot of time, effort, and financial investment working with professionals who are technically doctors but definitely don’t save lives.

Then there’s me, whose basketball-shorts-and-t-shirt combo conveys a general aesthetic of “Sir, the restroom is for customers only.” A guy can get insecure. So what could I do to fit in? I’m half-Mexican, so a spray tan will only do so much to my complexion. A Stetson cowboy hat would cost more than my car could get on the open market. A boob job would raise more questions than it answers. But professional teeth whitening is exactly the kind of low-stakes image rebrand I could get behind.

I got in touch with the only person I knew who had undergone such a procedure. My friend, Ann—now in her early 30s—had been given a teeth whitening session as a high school graduation gift, which I could only guess expressed a lesson along the lines of “Congratulations, the real world is a vain place; don’t forget to smile.” I called Ann and asked her what she remembers. She recalled a multiple-hour experience at a dentist’s office that has since gone out of business. She passed the time by listening to a book on tape (“probably Little Women”) on a portable CD player.

Most important, though, she said the operation stuck. It was the only time she’s ever gone in for a whitening and maintains perfectly white teeth. I was on board.

The next step was figuring out how and where to get my teeth bleached. It’s a service most dentists will provide for a fee. I spoke to Dr. Steven Stutsman of Downtown Dallas Dentistry, who explained that there are two basic approaches to teeth whitening in a dental office: bleaching with a high-intensity light that interacts with carbamide peroxide and provides a quick and sometimes dramatic whitening, or a tray system that takes an impression of the teeth to create a reservoir for the bleaching solution you would place in your mouth and wear at your leisure. Stutsman offers the tray system because it’s cheaper and doesn’t require his patients to go back for multiple sessions every time their teeth become stained.

Still, going to a dentist would put me at risk of being subjected to a spiel about the long-term health of my teeth. Let’s be honest; this isn’t about the personal hygiene of my teeth. It’s about the physical appeal of my face. I needed a professional who would fully grasp the shallow nature of my goal to fit in at the West Village Starbucks.

So I went to Groupon.

Rapid Smile Labs Teeth Whitening offers light-based teeth whitening sessions that run anywhere from $99 to $250, but a $50 deposit toward my Groupon secured me an appointment at one of its four DFW locations for the most basic option.

My confirmation and reminder emails didn’t come with any instructions, so I showed up to the small office with nothing but a tense smile and was greeted by a lab technician who told me it would be just a moment. I asked if I could use the restroom first (a tip of advice from Ann). Washing my hands, I was put at ease by the pristine lab and the dulcet tones of Adele on the speakers. This felt like a classy operation.

When I emerged from the bathroom, the lab technician was no longer there, so I took a seat on the only bench, a few feet from a man in a reclined chair. A science fiction-style tube extended from the ground to above the chair, ending with an oval-shaped device that aimed glowing lights into his mouth, which was being held open by a plastic contraption. He was wearing sunglasses. After about three long minutes, the technician had still not returned, and the man had not so much as moved a muscle or made a sound that resembled breathing. You’d be surprised how quickly dulcet tones turn to haunting moans when you’re passing the time with the lifeless body of a man undertaking a procedure you’re minutes away from subjecting yourself to. I’ve never seen Westworld, but I imagine there was a scene like this in the first episode.

I remembered a sentence hidden in the FAQ section of the company website: “The Authorized Rapid Smile Labs is not a dentist or dental professional.”

When the lab technician—we’ll call her Mary—returned, she invited me to sit down in the chair next to the hopefully still alive man. My Groupon had afforded me a 15-minute session, so I was hoping technology had come a long way since Ann had walked the stage for her diploma. An entire book on tape would be out of the question. A short story, perhaps. There were expensive headphones hanging from the bottom of the chair, but they weren’t offered to me, and this didn’t feel like the type of place where I called the shots. It was the type of place where I signed a release form without reading it and blindly followed instructions.

The prep all happened very fast, and I trusted the gentle confidence in Mary’s voice. I remember being given a swab with vitamin E oil to apply to my gums in case of sensitivity. I applied lip balm because my mouth would be stretched open the entire time. Then I swabbed some gel onto my teeth.

I remembered a sentence hidden in the FAQ section of the company website: “The Authorized Rapid Smile Labs is not a dentist or dental professional.”

Mary put the plastic contraption in my mouth, locking me into the expression of a nervous emoji. She insisted on taking a “before” photo, which was performed with an iPhone camera with the flash on. Then she pulled the oval-shaped device inches from my mouth and lined it up with my teeth. Mary walked back to her desk and told me to let her know if I needed anything, which seemed sort of impossible, but I appreciated the invitation nonetheless.

The 15 minutes were uneventful. The light’s glow was warm on my face but painless. My jaw became tired of being held open, but it was over before I knew it. The plastic contraption was removed from my mouth, and we took an “after” photo. The improvement was subtle but noticeable. I was shown a chart that tracked whiteness from T1 (very white) to T40 (very not white). Fifteen minutes earlier I had been a T28. Post-whitening, I was a T24. This was less dramatic than I had anticipated.

Then the upsell began. “We don’t recommend anything less than a 30-minute session,” said the woman whose company had sold me a 15-minute session. I seriously considered Mary’s offer to stay in the chair and pay for an additional session, but T24 was an improvement, and Mary had pointed out that my stains were more prevalent closer to my gum line, so I’d need the gaping smile of an insane person for someone to really notice any yellow.

I went straight to the West Village Starbucks to meet a former colleague for coffee. Well, I didn’t drink coffee. Mary had specifically told me not to. But I still had to take these new T24s for a spin. No one there seemed to notice my teeth, but I still carried the moderate confidence of someone who had invested in some vain form of self-care. I could see how people could become addicted to the pursuit of correcting their imperfections.

The teeth whitening experience wasn’t bad. I just didn’t have the bankroll to make it a very satisfying one. Places like Rapid Smile Labs that specialize in teeth whitening do have a certain in-and-out appeal. I can see why someone who has to take wedding photos the next day might drop in and pay for a one- or two-hour session. But Stutsman was happy to point out that there are cheaper long-term options at Walgreens. “I truly don’t think that the peroxide materials that are being used by either the pharmacy or at the dental office are significantly different,” Stutsman said, adding that Downtown Dallas Dentistry provides a custom fit that is more comfortable and less cumbersome for his patients’ mouths. Plus, if you already like your dentist, you probably can get whichever procedure they offer done without any additional sales pitches.

The night after my session, I went on a first date. By the end of the night, I’d secured an enthusiastic commitment for a second date. I’d like to think my personality played a large part, but it’s hard to say for sure. She never knew the old me.

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