June 3, 2020
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Cultures differ on what makes a beautiful smile!

By: George Malkemus
January 11, 2019

Straight white teeth are the mark of beauty in our American Hollywood culture. Other cultures have different views of dental beauty. The white craze has not hit Europe yet. Natural off-white is still the norm throughout Europe, but with the influence of American cultural, especially through movie stars, that is starting to change. In most third world countries, gold is considered the standard of beauty - having any dental work is a sign of wealth and gleaming gold shows that best.

Whitening teeth

Not long ago, natural-looking, slightly off-white teeth were the norm of beauty in our culture. That has changed; white is in. Now whenever I do a smile design for a patient, I give them the choice between natural shades and bright white [bleaching] shades. More and more people are opting for the whitest white smile. With the recent access to whiting systems, white teeth have become the standard. Fifteen years ago, super white shades were not even available for veneers and crowns. Now dental laboratories have many whiter shades with which to fabricate white restorations.

There are many over-the-counter whitening systems that have mixed results. Home whiting from a dental office is much more effective. This is due to a higher concentration of whiten gel and custom fitting of the whitening trays with space designed to hold the gel where it is needed on the visible surfaces of the esthetic teeth.

Compliance has always been an issue with home whitening systems. It is a pain to wear the trays, so it is only a dedicated few who continue with home whitening. For that reason, I began using Zoom whitening in my office a few years ago with great success. Zoom is a computer chip technology that whitens with a controlled intense light in the dental office. Usually two one-hour appointments are needed to lighten the teeth about 8 shades.

Gold smiles are “The in” in many cultures.

A number of years ago, I was asked to place a full gold crown on a young woman’s broken-down front tooth. My staff members thought she was crazy. In actuality, she was a bright, beautiful Tongan princess. In Tonga, a gold tooth represents wealth and royalty and is a sign of beauty. There are very few professional dentists in the Pacific Islands and no dentist in Tonga at the time of her treatment. In Tonga, when a tooth becomes infected, it is just pulled. So a tooth restored with gold is rare, special treatment and is a sign of wealth and beauty.

In 1990, I was on the Fijian island Vanua Levu where there was no dental care except for treatment by an old retired German physician. His only dental procedure was tooth extractions, usually for trade for fish or fruit. Most of the islanders were missing various front and back teeth. The Fijian natives were warm and friendly with happy jack-o-lantern smiles.

American gold culture

Gold front teeth are also a preferred restoration in some American ethnic cultures. Mike Tyson, the infamous heavy weight boxing champion, used his gold front tooth to bite off a piece Evander Holyfield’s ear. While in dental school at UC San Francisco in 1982, I treated a 68-year-old black male with a gold veneered front tooth. Due to severe gum disease, he needed all his remaining teeth extracted and full dentures fabricated. He asked me if he could have the same gold tooth in his new denture. He told me, “My gold tooth is part of my sophisticated character.” His wish was granted; his denture fit well and looked just like his original teeth. He was happily smiling with a gold tooth grin.

My brother Larry is a hardcore San Francisco Giants fan and played softball into his 60s. We are both still ecstatic about the World Champion Giants with three World Series victories since 2000, though lately times have been tough. With baseball my brother’s love, I have placed three gold crowns with different baseball related designs etched on the side of each. One says Giants, a second says SF and the third has a picture of a baseball. The crowns are all on back molar teeth. We kept his front teeth white.

Exotic Island vampires

In 1978, I was on the Pacific Island of Yap. All Yapese chew beetle nut; they pride themselves on having the best beetle nut in the world. Beetle nut is extremely addictive, which is why you don’t see many Yapese outside Yap; they can’t leave their beloved beetle nut. It has a powerful euphoric and sedative feeling, similar to tobacco, along with a strong bitter numbing sensation like cocaine or Novocain. Lye is chewed along with beetle nut to improve the release of the active alkaloids. The lye erodes teeth and causes massive decay. Like chewing tobacco, beetle nut causes juices to flow, but rather than spitting black juice like tobacco, beetle nut is bright red and is drooled out of the mouth. You can imagine my surprise at my first encounter with grass-skirt-wearing Yapese women, dripping red down their topless breasts from Dracula-like, sharp, eroded, toothy smiles. To me, they looked like exotic island vampires! To them, it was pure island beauty.

Mayan inlayed jade teeth

The ancient Mayans in Central America would inlay jade in their front teeth for beauty. Archeologists have found many Mayan skulls with inlayed jade teeth. Many of the Mayan skulls found with inlays had an abscess in the bone above the root tip of the inlayed tooth. An abscess infection had occurred from the jade inlay procedure. The tooth abscess was the actual cause of the death in most the skulls found. Can you imagine what it would be like to have your tooth slowly hand drill and chiseled without numbing a thousand years ago? Ouch!

So whatever your image of beauty, whether inlayed teeth, gold teeth, sharpened vampire teeth, or natural-looking teeth, your desires can be met. You can even have a bright, white, Hollywood smile if that is what you desire.


George Malkemus has a Family and Cosmetic Dental Practice in Rohnert Park at 2 Padre Parkway, Suite 200. Call 585-8595, or email info@ Visit Dr. Malkemus’ Web site at