The tooth whitening conversation – more than cosmetic

DATE: September 2020
AUTHOR: Louise Sinclair

As dental hygienists, tooth whitening is one of the simplest, most affordable ways we can help our patients improve their smiles and their self-esteem. Much more than just a cosmetic enhancement, research has found that tooth whitening can have a significant positive impact on patients’ oral health-related quality of life, self-perception, and psychosocial well-being.

A person’s smile can also affect how they’re perceived by others. According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD), 'virtually all Americans (99.7%) believe a smile is an important social asset.' An unattractive smile is widely considered to make a person appear less attractive, less confident, and even less likely to succeed in their career.

When asked what makes a smile unattractive, the most common answer is stained or discolored teeth. This is also one of the first things people claim to notice, deeming it more important than any other factor in forming a first impression.

With this in mind, we can safely say that many of our patients can benefit from tooth whitening. And yet, the tooth whitening conversation can be a difficult one to start. We don’t want to offend a patient by implying that their smile is unattractive, and we don’t want to be perceived as simply pushing or upselling treatments. Meanwhile, some patients do want tooth whitening, but don’t feel confident starting the conversation themselves. So how can we tactfully bring our services to the attention of patients who would benefit from them?

1. Pre-screen new patients.

Use your new patient registration forms to identify patients who may want and benefit from tooth whitening. You might ask questions like:

“Do you have any concerns about the appearance of your teeth?”

“Are you satisfied with the shade of your teeth?”

“Do you regularly drink red wine and/or coffee?”

2. Take a shade measurement as standard.

Take a shade measurement at every check-up appointment and show the patient where their teeth sit on the scale. Sometimes, seeing how much whiter their teeth could be is enough to prompt the patient to ask about whitening. If you notice a change in color since their last appointment, you can use the shade measurement to point this out in an objective, inoffensive way:

“According to your records, your tooth shade has darkened slightly since your last appointment. If this is something you’re concerned about, I can tell you more about the whitening services we offer.”

3. Ask about esthetic concerns.

We often begin by asking our patients to tell us about any oral health or oral hygiene concerns they have, but many patients consider esthetic issues to be a separate topic. We can help them by explicitly asking how they feel about the appearance of their smile, and if there are any specific cosmetic concerns that they want to talk about.

4. Ask about upcoming life events.

Whenever we have a big event coming up, we naturally start to think about how we can look our best for the big day (and the photos!). If your patient has a special vacation or major milestone ahead – think birthdays, graduations, weddings, or engagements – then now is the ideal time to bring up tooth whitening. Ask if they have anything exciting planned, and they’ll usually be more than happy to share their news with you!

5. Make your whitening services visible.

In some cases, patients who do want tooth whitening simply may not be aware that this is a service you offer. Make sure to advertise tooth whitening - for example, on the wall in the waiting room and operatory, and in digital locations like your website. If you offer online booking, and perform in-office whitening, you can also offer tooth whitening as a simple, one-click add-on during the booking process. That way, returning patients that you have already discussed whitening with and who are suitable candidates can book ahead of time.

6. Prepare talking points.

While professional tooth whitening treatments like Colgate® Optic White® Professional are among the more affordable cosmetic options, some patients will inevitably be tempted by the very low price of drugstore alternatives. Arm yourself and your team with research and talking points, and ensure everyone is able and prepared to communicate the value of in-office or take-home whitening compared to over-the-counter options.