21st January 2020

The dark side of pearly whites

Northern Ireland Trading Standards has teamed up with local councils to inform consumers of the potential dangers of illegal tooth whitening.


By Michael McCaw
Freelance writer for JTS
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The dangerous levels of hydrogen peroxide contained in illegal tooth whitening kits may put an individual’s health at risk

Between 2016 and last year, the General Dental Council recorded more than 2,100 complaints about tooth whitening conducted by unregistered practitioners, which led to 78 prosecutions in the UK alone. The damage caused by these procedures can be life-changing: a recent study by the British Dental Journal that reviewed some of the products commonly used by unregistered and fraudulent practitioners found that they contained several banned substances such as sodium perborate, a bleach that can cause mouth infections, blistering and burns to gums, damage to nerves and tooth enamel, and gum shrinkage.

By law, tooth whitening should only be carried out by a qualified dental professional but it’s incredibly difficult to police. A recent case in Wales – which eventually led to three individuals being ordered to pay £1.6m in damages for selling teeth whitener that contained 110 times the legal limit of hydrogen peroxide – took trading standards three years to investigate, costing £400,000. Further efforts are being made elsewhere, with the Service in Northern Ireland launching the Protect Your Smile campaign in June.

Teaming up with the Department for the Economy and the environmental health departments of 11 district councils across Northern Ireland, the multimedia campaign was designed to warn the public of the dangers of illegal teeth whitening. The campaign is delivered in video format, with a targeted social media strategy. It has been described as “shocking” by Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Borough Council, which said it serves as a “stark reminder of the dangers of illegal tooth whitening and products and services.”

For Charlene Conlon, a Northern Ireland trading standards officer,
it’s crucial viewing for those considering a procedure. “We would encourage anyone thinking of having their teeth whitened to watch this hard hitting video to help them better understand the dangers associated with illegal tooth whitening,” she says.

“Promises of fast results and a brighter smile may seem enticing but the dangerous levels of hydrogen peroxide contained in illegal tooth whitening kits may put an individual’s health at risk.”

Utilising a multimedia campaign is the useful way to draw the attention of younger people – vital to its success, says a spokesperson at the British Dental Association (BDA), which has
been campaigning to move tooth whitening solely back into the hands of registered dentists.

“Research indicates that young people in particular like white teeth and are influenced by images from social media and celebrities, so the strategy to employ a comprehensive range of tactics that ‘speaks’ to this cohort is important in terms of expanding its reach.”

Enforcement with teeth

The case in Wales isn’t the only high-profile prosecution, as the cases mount up for trading standards. Last year, Liverpool Magistrates’ Court fined a former reality TV star £11,000 for carrying out illegal tooth whitening procedures, while in Derby courts found a practitioner guilty of the same crime and meted out a fine totalling more than £9,000. The various industry bodies hope that the fines and penalties handed out exceed the profits fraudsters make, acting as a deterrent to those who consider breaking the law. In June, a Belfast-based individual was sentenced to 12 months of probation and given a £1,500 fine after pleading guilty to charges related to the use and supply of tooth whitening products after Belfast City Council found hundreds of gels and syringes in his clinic – many containing 300 times stronger the legal dose of hydrogen peroxide gel.

Given how difficult the practice is to police, industry bodies such as the BDA are advocating educational strategies such as those employed in the Protect Your Smile campaign. By showcasing the risks (the video opens with a graphic images warning) inherent in using unregistered dentists to receive tooth whitening treatment, the campaign and others like it aim to raise awareness.

“A measure of success is that more people are aware of the potential damage that can be done to their teeth and gums from going to non-dental professionals for teeth whitening and are put off going to fraudsters,” says the BDA spokesperson.

It’s a substantial problem that has grown considerably in recent years. According to the Oral Health Foundation, the UK tooth whitening industry was worth £40m in 2017. The same nationwide poll found that certain demographics are more likely to have had tooth whitening provided by “illegal, untrained and dangerous providers” – one in four single adults in the UK have undergone teeth whitening treatments, with 45% of those having used illegal, untrained and dangerous providers. Last year, the Official Cosmetics Control Laboratories conducted a study that found that 78% of brush-on whiteners and more than 50% of tray-based tooth whiteners and whitening strips were non-compliant with European Union or national regulations.

The messages in the campaign provide clear warnings of a market that too many fall victim to, and the organisations involved have received acclaim, including an award in the Product Safety Category in the Regulatory Excellence Awards 2019, organised by the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS).

“There are strict laws on who can legally carry out tooth whitening and for good reason as this video shows,” said Richard Graham, the BDA’s chair of the Northern Ireland Dental Practice Committee, following the announcement of the campaign. “If you put yourself in the hands of unqualified people with unknown chemicals you are gambling with your health.”