Last May, a video from the TikTok account @elijahosen went viral. The clip has been viewed four million times and racked up more than 600,000 likes for its depiction of DIY dentistry.
The video shows the journey of the account’s owner as he closed the gap between his two front teeth with rubber bands, which he claims was a viable and much faster alternative to the expensive option of braces. The update and response videos that followed received hundreds of thousands of views.
It wasn’t long before the trend swept across TikTok. Many young people began documenting their ad hoc use of tiny rubber bands to close gaps between their teeth, or to straighten their smiles, without the supervision of professionals. The community of dentists on TikTok — why, yes, of course it exists — decried the trend, but it was hard to compete with the hype.
“People got excited because they’d closed their gap without spending thousands of dollars,” says Dr. Huzefa Kapadia, a 47-year-old general dentist from Michigan who has over one million TikTok followers on his account, @dentite. “But if you move your teeth too fast, you cause problems. You will damage the roots of your teeth — teeth start to disintegrate because you’ve moved them too quickly.”
Kapadia and other dental influencers — many of whom first joined TikTok in a bid to reach their target demographic of teens and tweens in need of braces and fillings — have found themselves confronted with a deluge of terrible tooth-care trends and advice that has disastrous IRL consequences. In response, they are going to battle, TikTok-style: They duet on or otherwise highlight the troublesome videos they see, providing their professional (and humorous) takes.
Dr. Benjamin Winters, an orthodontist from Texas whose @thebentist account has more than 11 million followers, is especially worried about the fad of charcoal toothpaste, which has been heralded across TikTok as a whitening miracle. “Charcoal is so abrasive. It’s pretty much like sandpaper. People were removing the stain, but they were also completely ripping off all their enamel,” says Winters.
“I had a lot of patients that were coming in with hypersensitivity, where I couldn't even touch their teeth with air or water,” he says. “We tried to get their teeth re-mineralized, but once the damage is done, the damage is done.” Winters has duetted with a number of TikToks that promote the supposed virtues of charcoal toothpaste, using them as a springboard to explain why it’s a terrible idea. He has devoted entire YouTube videos to the subject, too.
Kapadia, meanwhile, is particularly concerned about the increased incidences of decay, which he links to the excessive sugar consumption promoted on TikTok. “People mix a bunch of really sugary stuff that’s crappy for your teeth. They eat it or drink it, and it gets attention — it’s constantly trending,” he says. “We’re seeing much higher incidences of rampant decay from things like Jolly Ranchers and Sour Patch Kids.”
Dr. Zainab Mackie, a 34-year-old general dentist from Michigan whose @drzmackie account has more than 900,000 followers, says another issue dentists are battling is the rise of mail-order retainers, which are widely promoted on TikTok. “From what I understand, there isn’t a dentist or orthodontist that you can check in with when you get this treatment. So, the concern is that an issue arises and you might not notice it,” she says.
There are thousands of videos on TikTok in which people document their use of aligners, acquired from companies that offer no-contact delivery services. “Tooth movement isn’t a joke,” Mackie says. “It’s not something you can just do at home. If there's too much force, your teeth can start getting loose.”
Winters often sees the grisly results in his office. “They lose money, they have a worse smile than before, and then I have to fix it,” he says. In one particularly memorable IRL case, Winters had to treat a 67-year-old woman who ended up with a misaligned jaw after using mail-order aligners. (It’s unclear whether she was a TikTok user.)
“It made her bite to where her bottom and top teeth were edge to edge, in line with each other,” Winters recalls. “After about three or four months of that, she had broken off all of her front teeth. She had to get veneers and crowns to fix the damage, and we had to give her braces to fix the bite.”
Although Winters is reluctant to name mail-order aligner companies for fear of being sued, he still feels it’s important to speak out about them, especially in the context of social media. “Social media is the reason behind this because there's no cyber police out there saying whether or not what you're saying is truthful,” he says. “They don't care as long as they get their advertising dollars.”
To combat this issue, Winters recently launched his own company, Something Nice Co., which sells toothbrushes that he says are actually backed by science, research, and certified dentists.
The harm caused by mail-order devices pales in comparison to the latest threat dentists are seeing on TikTok: overseas dentistry.
The hashtag #medicaltourism, which mostly documents and glamorizes the act of traveling overseas for dental work, has more than 15 million views on TikTok. The videos advertise extreme dental work at budget prices, often undertaken in pursuit of an influencer-worthy smile. Many TikTokers do not know they’ve fallen victim to aggressive, and often dangerous, dentistry until it’s too late.
Kapadia has been saddened by what he’s seen. “I understand it is cheaper in another country where they're going to give you brand new teeth in four or five days. It sounds great. But after a year, these teeth start falling apart and get loose because they weren’t done properly,” he says.
Hashtags like #turkeyteeth (as in the country Turkey, which has a booming medical tourism industry) and #veneersjourney are awash with instances of terrible results. “You pay for what you get,” Kapadia says. “If it’s fast and cheap, it’s not going to be great quality work.”
Mackie has also been horrified by this trend and has a warning for anyone considering overseas dental work. “If somebody wants veneers, and we [somehow] end up doing crowns — which would mean damaging healthy teeth for no reason — that’s malpractice in the U.S,” she says. Those who venture outside of the country won’t be as well-protected. “Your rights don’t follow you,” she says. “So if someone messes up your teeth in another country, you can't do anything about it.”
Although things might seem grim, all hope is not lost. The dentists Input spoke to say they’ve seen their followers repeating proper dental knowledge they’ve picked up from trained professionals. Some are even policing other users who fall for dangerous trends. Kapadia sees his followers tagging him in videos about bad dental hygiene they’ve spotted — which shows they’re learning — and he has high hopes for the impact that dental TikTok could have on people’s teeth in the long run.
“I get messages from people who thank me for stopping them from doing something stupid, or for helping them overcome a phobia of the dentist, which is really kind of neat to see,” he says. “I do think it's gonna make a difference. Definitely.