Although the stress associated with COVID-19 is virtually unparalleled, the pandemic has actually given some people a reason to smile again — namely, an excuse to improve the look of their teeth.
It’s certainly true that the novel coronavirus has had some adverse effects on dental care. According to the American dental Association, the majority of dentists surveyed have reported increases in stress-related dental disorders among patients, including bruxism (teeth-grinding), TMJ, and chipped or cracked teeth. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the pandemic has caused many patients to skip scheduled dental visits altogether; whether due to health concerns or financial restraints, COVID-19 has had huge effects on the dental industry at-large.
But while many people are opting to stay home instead of seeing their dentist, that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring their teeth altogether. Approximately 4 million Americans now wear braces — and during the pandemic, many of them are obtaining orthodontic care virtually or via mail, with no dental appointments at all.
Because the most common reason for getting braces is aesthetics, clear aligners have been popular for years. Orthodonture products like Invisalign have been on the scene for quite some time, but until recently, they were accessible only through an orthodontist who offered this service. Now that Invisalign’s patents have expired, direct-to-consumer versions like Smile Direct Club and Byte have become available. And because they’re generally more affordable and more convenient than Invisalign, it’s no wonder that those who want straighter teeth are eager to try out the at-home version.
Services like these offer clear teeth aligners for a lower price. For example, some treatments cost less than $100 per month with an additional (albeit small) down payment. In turn, treatments are overseen by dentists or orthodontists affiliated with the service. But instead of having to go to an office every month to have trays changed out or have initial impressions taken by a professional, all of that is handled by the patient and sent through the mail.
This seems like the perfect fit for our “new normal” — and it’s one to which consumers are responding. According to Byte, the company’s sales grew by more than 1,000% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. The clear aligners boom mirrored other “quarantine projects,” as the CMO of Smile Direct Club explained in a statement. Even those who were blessed with straight teeth could make a foray into smile improvements with at-home teeth whitening, which explains why this sector experienced immense growth last year, as well. Between Zoom meetings and lots of spare time alone, it’s no wonder that many people are focusing on visual aspects they can easily improve.
But some people aren’t all smiles. Some at-home whitening treatments can cause adverse effects and potentially lead to lasting damage. And as for aligners by-mail, the results are mixed. Already, clear aligners aren’t always as effective as traditional braces. While it’s possible to treat more complex alignment issues with Invisalign, for example, the results have been found to be less accurate than what’s possible with metal braces. What’s more, services like Byte require dental photographs to be captured and submitted by the patients themselves; these photos are then reviewed by the “patient care team,” rather than actual orthodontists, which means there’s no guarantee that the aligners will achieve the desired effect by treatment’s end.
While a 2019 study published in The Journal of the American Dental Association found that 87.5% of people using direct-to-consumer orthodontics were satisfied with their treatment, around 6.6% actually had to visit their dentists in order to treat adverse effects. And in order to achieve refunds after only 30 days, customers often have to sign release forms stating they won’t publicly complain about the company; when one of the only options for recourse is lodging complaints with the BBB, the FTC, or online forums, this gets complicated rather quickly. However, the FDA, state attorneys general, and other agencies are looking into the matter and lawsuits are already being filed in certain situations. Although it may be impossible to prove an internet crime has taken place, which involves the use of the internet to communicate false or fraudulent representations to consumers, it’s possible that certain companies could be held accountable in the future.
If you’ve seen social media ads for these services, you certainly aren’t alone. But as tempting as it may be to think you can solve all of your tooth problems with one of these at-home kits, it might be worth taking a closer look at what you’re willing to risk. You might pay only $1,500 or so for aligners, which is certainly less than what you’d expect to spend by attaining Invisalign through your orthodontist. However, the lack of oversight and potential damage might make you think twice about whether it’s really worth messing with your teeth in quarantine.