How Whitening My Teeth Changed My Perspective on Beauty

Small procedure, big difference.

By: Emily Ramshaw

Right now I’m guessing you’re thinking, teeth whitening? Why in the world, when we’re also writing about getting Botox and fillers and lasering your entire bikini area off, is teeth whitening worth hearing about? It just feels kind of, um, minor, right?

Which is pretty much what Dr. Michael Apa said to me when I showed up at his (very swanky) Upper East Side office (he also keeps an office in Dubai, so you kind of get that he’s not your average dentist). “All you want is whitening?” he asked me incredulously. “This is the kiddie pool.”

While I’m faithful to my monthly Brazilian wax, I’m something of a neophyte (and a baby, depending on the pain level) when it comes to cosmetic procedures. I can say with confidence that I’ll never do Botox—partly because I’m deathly afraid of needles, and partly because I’m afraid it will do something irreversible and frightening to me face. On the latter note, I’ve also never dyed my hair. Beauty treatment neophyte. Mostly by choice.

 

“As I regularly notice whenever I brush my teeth with white toothpaste, or wear bright lipstick, my teeth are a pale shade of yellow.”

 

For some reason, however, whitening my teeth has always appealed to me. Likely because, as Dr. Apa pointed out, good teeth are associated with general health and well-being. Also, though, of my myriad flaws and imperfections, I’m conscious of the teeth. Not self-conscious, per se—they’ve never kept me from smiling—but I never had braces and, also as Dr. Apa pointed out when I arrived (there’s nothing like talking to a cosmetic dentist who’s fixed the Olsens’ smiles to make you glaringly conscious), my teeth are very small. And, as I regularly notice whenever I brush my teeth with white toothpaste, or wear bright lipstick, they’re also a pale shade of yellow. They always have been. Not unnaturally so—anyone else probably wouldn’t notice. But I do, which is what led me to Dr. Apa’s glossy office in the first place.

In my usual lazy way, I attempted briefly to remedy this yellowness myself with Crest Whitestrips ages ago when I was in college. The experiment lasted all of 30 seconds when the strips became too painful for me to stand (see? baby).

Before my procedure, I ask Dr. Apa probably five times if it’s going to hurt. At first he reassures me by blocking out the process: I’ll be reclined in a very comfortable chair where I can watch a movie on the ceiling. Then my gums will be blocked with some kind of mouth-guard-like contraption that keeps the bleaching agent from affecting them, and the tooth bleach—carbonate peroxide—will be applied three times in a row for 15 minutes each, during which they’ll shine a light on my teeth (which is largely just for show, Dr. Apa confides). 

The whole thing pretty much goes exactly as he says it will. “But will it hurt?” I persist. “Let me ask you a question,” he says. “Did you ever lay out in the sun before? Did you ever get too much sun? How long did it hurt for? It could hurt for a day, but it’s not going to be life-changing.” Okay, I think I can handle that.

And on that sunburn metaphor, will the bleaching damage my teeth at all? “Bleaching is 100 percent safe and does not affect the integrity of enamel.”

I’m reassured to jump in the kiddie pool. And the before and after pictures are flooring. My teeth are white. Not scary, superhero, Hollywood white, but I have white teeth, unquestionably, as soon as the last round of bleach is removed. In the before picture, on the other hand, my teeth look frighteningly yellow.

I walk out of Dr. Apa’s office armed with his new Apa White Duo—an at-home whitening treatment that I can use for “touch-ups”—feeling super confident. I suddenly have the urge to smile at everyone, from the MTA officer to the gawky high school kid sitting across from me on the subway. That is, until I’m walking to meet friends for dinner and begin to feel a throbbing pain in my teeth, not dissimilar to that which I experienced with the Crest Whitestrips all those years ago. Except now I can’t rip them off! I’m stuck with it, until—when?—a day?

Now, remember, I’m a baby. I can’t handle pain—especially pain that lasts longer than a second (why I can handle putting myself through a Brazilian...)—and as saliva gathers in my mouth, I realize there’s literally nothing I can do about this except push my way through a glass of rosé and my lobster roll (I will not show my friends what a baby I am—though I’m sure they can tell by my general silence and considerable wincing), and hurry home to dose myself with a sleeping pill, praying it will all be over by morning. The last thing I do before I go to sleep is send my boyfriend a self-loathing text about being too vain for my own good.

 

“I suddenly have the urge to smile at everyone, from the MTA officer to the gawky high school kid sitting across from me on the subway.”

 

But there’s something to this vanity. The next morning, the pain is completely gone. But my teeth are still white. I struggle through two days without coffee (very hard) and red wine (maybe even harder) in order to maintain that whiteness, and then I’m good to go.

Now I want to wear every bright lipstick in my drawer and actually show off my small but pearly whites. A week or so after the treatment, I go to my first wedding of the season and feel amazing. And I get compliments, too—not specifically about my teeth, but telling me I look fresher, younger, healthier (and trust me, it’s not because I’ve been working out). I feel validated and forget the painful few hours. Okay, so I won’t promise I’ll never do Botox just yet.

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