Straine-On-Success — Why Orthodontists Love Perfect Smiles

Published on September 28, 2015

The perfect-smile industry is famously huge in America, but you might not realize just how huge until you read Dan P. Lee’s “Metal-Mouths” story in New York magazine’s health issue.

It’s a “capitalist parable,” he says, describing how a couple of Stanford business-school students with no dental training came up with the idea for Invisalign — which in less than 20 years has grown to a $700 million-a-year business.

He also visits the small-town orthodontist who built the biggest private orthodontics practice in the world by moving to what he calls “barefoot and toothless” Arkansas — a description many of his patients would presumably bristle at — and offering easy payment plans so “the people who work at Tyson processing chickens can bring their kids here.”

The multibillion-dollar teeth-whitening business, Lee recounts, began in the 1990s with dentists applying peroxide gel to the teeth; then non-dentists started offering the treatment in salons and shopping malls: “Teeth whitening has now trickled so far down-market as to be a mainstay of any grocery store.”

There’s a lot of discussion about Americans’ obsession with that perfect smile: A 2012 study says 38 percent of Americans wouldn’t go on a second date with someone with crooked teeth; 80 percent of U.S. teenagers are currently in an orthodontist’s care.

The singer Jewel, known for her crooked teeth, describes the experience of wearing prosthetic straight teeth as making her feel “normal.”

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