Whiter Smiles Have Dentists Frowning

A designer smile, long the preserve of the jet set, is now within reach of any set. of teeth. In the past two years, dozens of teeth-whitening products have flooded the market, promising to brighten yellow, stained teeth for about $10. While business booms, the American Dental Association worries about product safety.

The ADA recently warned that regular use of "oxygenating agents," the principal chemicals used in most whiteners, could damage mouth tissue and tooth pulp, and may enhance the effect of carcinogens. "While [whiteners] may be safe and effective, we haven't seen enough data to recommend them for the public," says Kenneth Burrell, director of the ADA's Council on Dental Therapeutics.

The most common oxygenating agent is carbamide peroxide, which, in contact with saliva, releases a highly reactive concentration of oxygen. This process removes superficial stains, including those from coffee and cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently looking into the regulatory status of the whiteners. While distributors claim their products don't need FDA approval because they are marketed as cosmetics, FDA spokesperson Bonnie Aikman says, "If we find [they] affect the body's structure or function, they will be classified as drugs." The FDA requires greater evidence of safety for drugs than cosmetics.

But manufacturers anticipate a bright future. EPI Products vice president Sharon Feuer says, "We even got a letter from a soldier in Saudi Arabia who wants me to send him some EpiSmile."