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The cost of maintaining your teeth

You know if you have killer pearly whites, you can meet the girl or guy of your dreams. Why, you can even secure a friendship or make a business deal using your charm. Or you can fake your way into understanding what in the world the boss is saying by just showing an understanding grin.

But not everybody has the teeth of a movie star. If your teeth buck out like Bugs Bunny or your smile is the shade of Crayola yellow, then take steps to get them gleaming quickly and cheaply.

Brace yourself

At the pricey end of the scale, correcting your teeth may require braces. More than 5 million people in the United States and Canada are in the care of an orthodontist, whose tools have advanced from the days when braces meant a smile with a metallic gleam.

Braces today can be clear, or may be purchased in a variety of colors. The days of having to return frequently for wiring adjustments have passed, too. Thanks to NASA, the wires now can be made from a heat-activated nickel-titanium alloy, which are more flexible and keep their tooth-straightening powers longer. They can put a man on the moon and get your bicuspids to shape up.

Getting the space-age wiring in your mouth isn't cheap. The price can gum up anyone's budget -- expect to pay $2,000 to $6,000, depending on the length and difficulty of treatment. Dental insurance typically tops out at $1,000 to $1,500, so paying for braces can involve financing them over time.

Brush up on the basics

At the other end of the price scale, tooth care can involve no more than brushing and flossing.

And your mom was right. You need to brush at least twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush and floss daily to avoid damage to the teeth and gums. You could just head down to the corner drugstore and pick up a nice toothbrush for around $2.79. Those who will have nothing but the best for their teeth, however, may choose the Sonicare Plus cordless electric teeth cleaning system. Only $110 from Sharper Image. But one dentist warns that when it comes to brushing, it's not the size of the prize; it's the motion of the ocean.

"Most important is how you brush," says Larry Ashkinazy, a show biz dentist in New York City. "The mechanical brushing action is what cleanses the teeth."

The American Dental Association in Washington, D.C., recommends that you:

  • Brush your teeth at a 45-degree angle against the gums.
  • Brush the outer, inner and chewing surfaces of the teeth.
  • Use the "toe" of the brush to clean the inside surfaces of the front teeth, using a gentle up-and-down stroke.
  • Brush your tongue to remove bacteria and freshen your breath.

The cavity creeps

Meanwhile, floss is cheap. Grocery stores sell a whole box of the waxy string for between 99 cents and $2.29. A small price to pay to prevent tooth decay.

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As for toothpaste, you can choose from the thousands of brands claiming to make your teeth brighter than the chrome on a brand new BMW. You'll spend about $2.99 on average for the paste. Experts recommend that you shop around for the product that suits your needs.

"Just use your common sense," recommends Ashkinazy. "If your teeth are sensitive, then find a toothpaste that makes sensitive tooth claims. If you are a naturalist, use a toothpaste with natural ingredients."

To protect you from years of your mouth looking something like a redneck family reunion, make sure you have check-ups twice a year. Avoid mints, colas, red wine, blueberry pie, coffee and teas; and watch the amount of sugars and carbohydrates you take in daily. The problem is, around Halloween and Christmas, sugar is falling from the sky.

"Don't keep grazing (for sugar) during the day," suggests Caron Nelson, a dentist in Duvall, Wash. "If you are going to eat sugar, get it done quickly. Don't eat something that will sit in your mouth for a long time."

A star is born

Peering in celebrities' mouths has taught Ashkinazy that great teeth are made, not born. "I can tell you first hand from treating celebrities, many have had some kind of cosmetic dental surgery," he says.

The bleach boys

If coffee, tea or tobacco have turned your grin into an ugly shade of beige, bleaching, bonding or veneering might undo the damage. But it's going to cost you some bucks.

Bleaching your teeth is the process of either wearing form-fitted trays for several weeks at night in your mouth to stain the enamel as white as an albino or by going to the dentist's office for instant whitening. Bleaching is approved by the American Dental Association -- look for products that bear the ADA Seal of Acceptance.

For a bleach blond smile, expect to fork out between $350-$975 for trays, depending on the part of the country. Bleaching will relapse slightly within a year or two, but it will be several years before your teeth are as yellow as a highway yield sign, according to Nelson.

Meanwhile, laser dental bleaching is more costly, running anywhere from $900-$1,500. The advantage to using trays over lasers is a lower cost of maintaining that toothy-white smile over the long run. But if you have to have your teeth bright white by tonight then laser is the way to go.

Bonding has nothing to do with being close to your counterparts. Rather it is a dental procedure that gives your teeth the appearance of being straight and white by fusing porcelain or plastic to the tooth and painting on layers of white. However, the $400-$1,000 per tooth price tag may give you a toothache.

Veneers will make your pocket feel just as thin. By taking a Formica-like micro wafer to replace the facing on the tooth, you can have a million-dollar smile. Of course, you'll feel like you spent bucks deluxe. At a price of $650-$800 per tooth, Veneers can cost up toward $10,000 for a complete smile. To lower the financial impact, get a few prominent teeth fixed. Some dentists warn to steer clear of veneers entirely.

"There are too many complications, and it's very expensive," complains Linda Golden, a dentist in Massapequa, N.Y. "It's a much more aggressive procedure (than bleaching or bonding). It should only be done on extremely stained teeth."

But Scott Coleman of Cosmetic Dental Associates in Houston disagrees with Golden's warning.

"I feel real comfortable with their durability," says Coleman. "A ceramic veneer will last 10 to 15 years."

Now that your know how to make you teeth as white as ivory snow, remember to smile. It only takes 14 muscles, as opposed to 43 for frowning.

-- Posted: Oct. 31, 1998

 

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