THE battle for the right to give people dazzling Hollywood smiles is set to erupt, with Victorian dental authorities preparing to take on the beauty industry in court.
The move — the first of its kind — comes as more beauty salons offer customers teeth bleaching, a procedure that uses potentially dangerous chemicals and has traditionally been performed by dentists and dental hygienists.
While glossy advertisements promise better, brighter smiles, dentists warn that in untrained hands the chemicals, which are sometimes activated by lasers, can burn gums and faces, cause irritation, tooth sensitivity and are toxic when highly concentrated.
The Dental Practitioners Board of Victoria, which regulates dentists, plans to prosecute a beauty practitioner in the Magistrates Court in about two months' time. The court action follows an approach to the board by a person who was injured during teeth whitening performed by a non-dentist.
The board's chief executive Peter Gardner, said the board would argue that the case involves a non-dentist practising dentistry, which is unlawful under state legislation.
Under the Health Professional Registration Act, only people who are registered as dental care providers can perform an "irreversible procedure" on teeth or manage "conditions of the mouth of a person".
Mr Gardner said: "We will say that tooth bleaching of this kind comes within that definition. Other people will say differently. We believe only dentists should be doing this sort of thing. We believe there are significant risks involved."
The board has no authority over the beauty industry but intends to launch the private prosecution in the public interest. Mr Gardner said the board had received many complaints about the beauty industry but did not have the resources to pursue them all. He would not identify the beauty practitioner involved.
Teeth whitening has became increasingly popular in a world obsessed with personal appearance modelled on the looks of celebrities, whose images often are digitally enhanced or who have porcelain-veneered teeth.
It is not cheap, especially when lasers or light sources are used to activate the chemicals. Such treatments cost between $450 and $1200.
Tooth bleaching has been snapped up by some beauty therapists in a similar way in which the industry has latched onto lasers and intense pulsed light (IPL) procedures for skin conditions. Until recently, both were performed by medically trained experts.
Now some beauty clinics openly target dentists in their advertising. One beauty testimonial says: "I had really bad tetracycline staining and after being told by my dentist that nothing would work I saw your brochure at my laser clinic." Other advertisements suggest that dentists are more expensive or painful.
The most common chemicals used in teeth bleaching are hydrogen peroxide and its associated chemical, carbamide peroxide. They are present in varying concentrations in whiteners available from supermarkets, overnight treatments and bleaching agents used by dentists.
Guidelines from WorkSafe Australia designate hydrogen peroxide as a hazardous substance when concentrated at 5% or more. Some tooth bleaching agents have concentrations of more than 35%.
Professor Laurie Walsh, the professor of dental science at Queensland University, is Australia's foremost expert on tooth whitening.
"Direct exposure of skin or eyes to 30% hydrogen peroxide may cause severe irritation or burns, while ingestion may be irritating to the oesophagus and stomach, causing bleeding and sudden distension," he said.
Even prolonged contact at a 3% concentration could cause irritation and burning. Enormous care was needed to protect gum, root surfaces, lips and soft tissue when applying higher concentrations.
The use of light sources and lamps also could result in direct heating of teeth and toothache.
"There is a need for regulatory controls," he said. "They (beauty therapists) don't understand the problem. It is something that should be confined to people who are properly trained and who know what they are doing."
The president of the Australian Dental Association, Mark Bowman, said teeth bleaching was highly regulated in England and Europe but in the US it was difficult to find anyone who hadn't had their teeth whitened.
He said beauty salons often made extravagant claims about the reliability of bleaching and there was a need for better regulation of the area.
Dr Bowman and oral hygienist and dental consultant Anthea Clarke, said people should seek the advice of a dentist before undergoing tooth whitening.
Healthy teeth show their true colours
- Adult teeth contain a mix of yellow, red and grey colours — there is no one correct colour. Healthy teeth darken and yellow with age.
- The gleaming teeth of models and TV personalities often are the result of digital manipulation or porcelain veneers.
- Discolouration stems from surface stains — tars in tobacco, tannins in tea and coffee or coloured food — or "internal" stains in the tooth structure.
- Toothpastes marketed for whitening contain ingredients to remove external stains by a gentle abrasive action.
- Internal stains are treated with oxygen-releasing chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide. When bleaching is supervised by dentists, it is regarded as a safe and simple procedure.
- High concentrations of the chemical can damage tissue or cause irritation or burns.
SOURCE: Professor Laurie Walsh, head of the school of dentistry, University of Queensland