The day before everything shut down in March, Isabel Calkins, 24, picked up eleven Invisalign trays from her dentist’s office in Orange County. She’d thought about straightening her teeth on and off for a few months, but hadn’t anticipated doing so at home, beneath a face mask, and during a period of time when the foremost rule was, Whatever you do, do not touch your face.
Calkins’ early-March appointment is apparently typical for adults seeking straighter teeth. According to John Sheldon, CMO of Smile Direct Club, the teledentistry company that went public in late 2019, the “New Year, New Me” crowd usually gets their first trays in March, after making appointments at the beginning of the year. And so Calkins, along with thousands of others, started her straightening trays in the days before no one was allowed to go anywhere or do anything. She’s since completely finished her six-month course of Invisalign, ready to emerge from quarantine—whenever that may be—with a new, straighter smile.
The extreme increase in Zoom meetings is part of why Sheldon thinks so many people have turned to teeth straightening during the pandemic. “Everybody’s staring at their face on Zoom all the time, and you start to notice, Oh, I could tweak this, get a little touch up there,” he said, adding that Smile Direct absolutely correlates their significant growth this year to the pandemic. “People call it their quarantine project or their Zoom glow up or whatever.” The conditions of the pandemic (never leaving home, never eating out, not going into an office, wearing a mask when and if in public, basically always being within walking distance of your toothbrush and sink) are an unintentional perfect environment for teeth straightening.
Sarah McDonald, head of brand marketing at Byte, told VICE that the company has experienced over 1000 percent growth through 2020, and multiplied the number of employees on staff by five. McDonald said the growth feels absolutely correlated to the pandemic, which she attributed to “right place, right time.”
A number of public figures have seemingly used the pandemic to straighten their teeth. Earlier this month, Charlie D’Amelio posted an #ad on her Instagram grid, holding up a yellow Invisalign tray case. Flo Milli recently debuted a set of traditional braces on her own TikTok, which were definitely not there even a few weeks ago. And in August, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted on Instagram stories about starting Invisalign after having health insurance for the first time in her life.
“I had to GET ELECTED TO CONGRESS for me to afford dental treatment,” she wrote. “I got a bag and fixed my teeth.”
The Invisalign trays D’Amelio advertised can cost anywhere between $3,000–$7,000, before partial reimbursement from insurance, which is an exorbitant cost in any time, but especially during a pandemic that’s caused unparalleled financial distress for countless Americans. Corrective trays can be partially covered by insurance if recommended by a doctor, but no dentist would be angry about a patient who has to return to them once a month, for several months in a row, to be re-fit for new trays.
Teledentistry services like Byte and Smile Direct position themselves as cheaper alternatives to traditional Invisalign. The companies told VICE they’ve seen significant increases in business throughout the pandemic, even with their still-high price tags for straightening trays (both Smile Direct and Byte price themselves at just under $2,000; more than the stimulus check).
Most of Smile Direct’s audience is in the 25–44 age range; basically, adults who may have had braces as a teenager and saw their teeth shift after forgoing their retainers, or adults who never had braces and want to close a few gaps with their excess income. Earlier this year, Smile Direct announced a new teen product, essentially hoping to capitalize on everyone’s newfound willingness to try remote dentistry. (That announcement may explain why D’Amelio, 16, the only user with more than 100 million followers on TikTok, started posting sponsored content for Invisalign to an audience that still receives an allowance.)
The pandemic has been a particular boon to dental telehealth. With some dental offices closed and patients generally wary of being in a room with a bunch of wide-open mouths, getting fitted for straightening trays at home is an especially appealing option. Sheldon said that, before the pandemic, Smile Direct’s “Smile Shops”—little stores that basically functioned as tray-fitting pit stops—made up the vast majority of Smile Direct’s business.
Lucero Saldaña, 30, had been considering Invisalign for over a year, but the high cost of orthodontics (even after insurance, most teeth straightening services cost upwards of $1,500 out of pocket) kept her from considering it—until the pandemic hit. Saldaña kept both her full-time job and part-time job as an adjunct professor, saved up money while quarantined at home in Texas, and decided to go through with it a few months into the pandemic.
“It’s perfect timing,” she said. “No one can see my teeth, so my teeth are getting straighter and nobody knows I even have these trays.”
Unlike Calkins, whose dentist forked over all the trays she would need and sent her on her way, Saldaña still has to go in every month to see her dentist and get fitted for new trays. That’s the only part of the whole process that feels strange or inconvenient, she said, due to the strict social distancing measures in an office where people are encouraged to stick their hands in each other’s mouths.
Alyssa Gill, 27, also has to go in to her dentist about every two weeks for new Invisalign trays, but was actually hit by a stroke of bad timing at the beginning of the pandemic.
“At one point I had my appointment to get new trays and my dentist's office [in Maryland] was just closed,” she said. “They ended up being closed for two months, so I had to wear my trays for way too long, which was really gross and delayed the overall length of treatment.”
Once the office reopened, Gill said her bimonthly dentist appointments are “the most intense” COVID-19 environment she’s been in throughout the pandemic. Each visit requires the routine temperature check, plus a mandatory gurgling of water mixed with peroxide, and her signature on a form stating she hasn’t traveled, been exposed to, or tested positive for COVID-19.
Otherwise, staying at home and wearing a mask means almost no one knows Gill even has straightening trays. “People may have seen them on Zoom, but I don’t think any of my coworkers know I have Invisalign, actually,” she said.
“It has been significant,” Sheldon told VICE of SmileDirect’s growth during quarantine. “I can put it this way: Our growth has been so solid this year, it’s enabled us to have our first profitable quarter since we’ve gone public [last September].”
Sheldon anticipates the New Year, New Me cohort in 2021 to be the largest they’ve ever seen, “bigger than ever,” given the news of the vaccine. “Now that the vaccine’s out, the big reveals, reunions, and weddings that got canceled are all going to happen,” he said. “It’s going to be the year of the reunion.” And if so, it’ll be a year of reunions and brand-new, suddenly immaculate smiles.
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