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The History of Cosmetic Dentistry

As you’ve probably heard, cosmetic dentistry has made great strides over the past couple of years. Thanks to modern technology, patients have a plethora of options to gain a beautiful smile in a short amount of time. Teeth whitening, veneers and dental implants are cutting-edge procedures that are defining a new era in dentistry. But wanting a brighter smile isn’t new — cosmetic dentistry actually dates back to ancient times.

Some forms of cosmetic dentistry have been practiced for thousands of years. Someone must have realized early on that oral hygiene made for a better-looking smile, as people used sticks to clean their teeth as early as 3000 BC.

The first bristle toothbrush was made from animal hair in the late 1400s, but it wasn’t very sanitary. DuPont® fixed this problem with the first nylon toothbrush in 1938, and in 1961, the first electric toothbrush was developed.

The Early Years

There’s not much documented regarding early cosmetic dentistry practices, but we do know some ancient civilizations used materials that resembled teeth for replacements and restorations. Around 700 B.C., the Etruscans made dentures with ivory and bone, and it was also common practice to construct dentures from human or animal teeth. Teeth were taken from the dead or extracted and sold by live donors. Although the resulting dentures smelled rotten and deteriorated quickly, this practice lasted through the 1800s.

By 200 AD, the Etruscans were using gold to make such restorations as a dental crown and dental bridge, although it may have been more for restorative purposes than a fashion statement. Other cultures that used cosmetic dentistry included the Ancient Egyptians, who hammered seashells into their gums as tooth replacements. Egyptians also made toothpaste of pumice stone and vinegar to scrub stains from their teeth, and early Romans used toothpaste that contained urine. Although it sounds disgusting, ammonia is actually a natural tooth-whitening agent and variations of it were used well into the 18th century.

Take a Little Off the Top

Barbers’ involvement in dentistry dates back to 1130, when they assisted during dental procedures. By 1210, a guild of barbers was formed, consisting of dental surgeons and dental hygienists. By the 1400s, barbers were no longer allowed to perform dental surgery but they did continue with oral hygiene services. Barbers filed teeth and coated them with acid to make them whiter, but the acid eventually destroyed tooth enamel and corroded teeth. Eventually, barbers’ involvement in dentistry fell by the wayside and they used their skills for more important ventures, like singing quartets.

The Age of Teeth Enlightenment

Cosmetic dentistry became an experiment over the next several centuries. During the 1400s, Europeans caught on and started carving dentures from bone or ivory. Unfortunately, these dentures could be extremely uncomfortable. In the 1700’s, human teeth were used as dental implants. Just like in the case of dentures, human teeth did not make for good replacements as bodies rejected them repeatedly. So in the 1800s, they turned to placing metals in the sockets of lost teeth — but that didn’t work very well, either.

The late 1700s and 1800s saw a vast improvement in prosthetic dentistry that helped pave the way for modern cosmetic dental procedures. Around 1770, the first porcelain dentures were made but it took ten years for the first dental patient to receive them. Soon, dentists starting used a form of plaster to make molds of their patient’s mouths for better-fitting dentures. In the early 1800s, porcelain dentures were brought to the U.S.

Porcelain teeth were actually very popular in the 1800s, resulting in a bustling dental economy. The 1840s saw the invention of Vulcanite, a rubber material used as a base for false teeth that made wearing dentures easier. The first dental lab to produce prosthetic teeth was established a decade later. Dentists continued to find ways to introduce porcelain into tooth restorations, and in 1903 Charles Land created the “porcelain jacket crown,” a substitute for amalgam and gold dental fillings.

Porcelain dental crowns made in the 1900s weren’t very efficient, but once porcelain was fused to metal in the late 1950s porcelain dental crowns became a possibility. By the early 1900s, dental labs switched to plastics and acrylics for dentures. Acrylic is still the standard material for modern dentures today.

Modern-Day Practices

Early day cosmetic dentistry posed a couple of problems — the appliances didn’t work well and the procedures could be extremely painful. In the late 1900s, dentistry started to focus on achieving natural-looking smiles and pain-free procedures. The 1990s saw a major increase in aesthetic dentistry and is considered the start of the cosmetic dentistry era, when the term “cosmetic dentist” was coined. Bleaching, dental veneers and dental implants are now standard practices in dental offices, and advancements in cosmetic dentistry continue to progress. Here’s how our current cosmetic dental procedures got to where they are today:

Teeth Whitening — In the 1800s, all kinds of teeth bleaching agents were used with varied results. In the 1900s, dentists paired hydrogen peroxide with a bleaching light to whiten teeth, but several treatments were needed to see results. 1989 was a big year for teeth whitening. Two dentists, Dr. Haywood and Dr. Heymann, came up with the idea of using carbamide peroxide as a whitening agent — and at-home bleaching trays were invented.

Laser Teeth Whitening — Laser dentistry was invented in the 1960s but was primarily used for gum disease treatment. In 1996, the FDA approved a dental laser for teeth whitening, which combined light or heat with a bleaching agent to lighten teeth in about an hour. Since its inception, millions of laser teeth whitening procedures have been successfully performed.

Composite Dental Fillings & Dental Bonding — Although they’ve been around for half a decade, white dental fillings have only recently been formulated to work. In 1949, Oskar Haggar developed the first system of bonding acrylic resin to dentin. But it was Michael Buonocore who, in 1955, invented a white tooth filling material and described an acid etch technique that increased the adhesion of acrylic dental fillings to enamel. The acid etch technique was a breakthrough in aesthetic dentistry, but early composite dental fillings often failed due to leakage. In 1962, Rafael Brown invented a thermoset resin complex used in composite resin, but it wasn’t popular until the 1980s when a light system was developed to cure composite fillings.

Dental Veneers — It may be hard to believe, but modern veneers actually came into the cosmetic dentistry market before laser teeth whitening. Dental veneers were invented in the 1930s by Charles Pincus as a temporary fix for movie stars. Held in place by denture adhesive, these dental veneers often fell off after a short period of time. In 1982, a new technique was introduced that allowed dentists to permanently bond porcelain dental veneers to teeth. Current teeth veneers are wafer-thin, strong, durable and usually last 10 to 15 years when cared for properly.

Dental Implants — In 1937, Alvin Strock inserted the first screw dental implant created solely for implant dentistry. But it wasn’t until 1952 when a Swedish doctor discovered osseointregration, a process where titanium fuses to bone, that dental implants became a real possibility. In 1965, Dr. P.I. Brånemark took his findings to the field of dentistry and the first modern dental implant was made. After years of research, Dr. Brånemark was ready to market his product in 1981. The idea of using implants to replace missing teeth really took off in the 90s and they’re a common procedure today.

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