People Are Making a Fortune Off Your Teeth

Have you been flossing regularly?

Americans love a great set of teeth. Studies show we appraise people with straighter, whiter teeth as more attractive, intelligent, and friendly. Hollywood actors shell out tens of thousands to remodel their mouths into shiny white, cookie-cutter grins, and online, celebrity teeth are analyzed and critiqued ad nauseum by fans. The concept of crooked and discolored teeth is so absurd to Americans that we made a millionaire out of the guy who popularized fake “Billy Bob Teeth.”


So it’s not too surprising that dental problems can impact your self-esteem and even your chances of getting a job. All of which seems more than a little unfair considering that, like most status symbols, a perfect smile can cost a fortune. 

Braces usually cost somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000. Whitening can be upwards of $300. Even non-cosmetic procedures, like a root canal or a crown, can easily set you back a few grand. And of course, beyond the superficial judgement of a potential date or employer, people need their chompers in good working order to, you know, eat solid food. Untreated dental problems can lead to serious medical complications, or even death. Oral pain can get so bad that trying to escape it has led people to commit robbery, make hoax bomb threats, and even pull out their own teeth with pliers. 

In the U.S., where all healthcare tends to be expensive and millions lack medical coverage of any kind, one in three adults has no dental insurance. In the U.K., the National Health Service is supposed to cover everyone’s teeth, but NHS dental care often requires out-of-pocket costs and still leaves millions of people without access. Even “good” private insurance usually only covers the basics, and if any serious problems arise, policyholders can end up owing thousands. In some ways, it’s just one front in a much larger fight over access to medical care, but the world of teeth, and our attitudes toward them, is also its own weird can of worms, shaped by fashion, greed, crime, and class dynamics.

This episode of Complexify drills down into it. 

Animation and graphics by Hunter French and Gabriel Connelly