(NEW YORK) -- The American obsession with dental hygiene has taken an ironic turn over the past decade.
In an attempt to have the bright, white, healthy-looking smile of the stars, many consumers are bleaching their teeth into oblivion.
Dentists call this addiction to whitening "bleachorexia," calling the overbleachers "bleach junkies." Such patients abuse in-office and at home bleaching agents, leaving teeth eroded, prone to sensitivity and extremely unhealthy, despite their pearly white exteriors.
Carbamide peroxide, the whitening agent in most bleaches, can irritate the gums, causing them to recede, making the teeth brittle, chalky and so thin as to be translucent at the edges when the product is overused.
"For some people, their teeth are never white enough, so they'll do anything to brighten," says Dr. Jennifer Jablow, who coined the term "bleachorexic" back in 2005.
Ironically, beyond making teeth weak and prone to decay, overbleaching can actually strip away the protective enamel allowing the underbody of the teeth, which is naturally more yellow in color, to show through.
When someone is a bleaching junkie, you can spot it right away, says Dr. Irwin Smigel, founder and current president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics.
"It's not everybody, but we see it often enough that it bothers me. Enamel doesn't grow back. Sometimes we have to put crowns or veneers on when the teeth have become too damaged," he says.
Today, Americans spend more than a billion dollars a year just on over-the-counter teeth-whitening products, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. While bleaching can be done safely, especially under the guidance of a dentist, the advent of at-home bleaching kits and spa bleaching treatments have made it all too easy for bleaching junkies to double up or triple up on treatments at the expense of their dental health.
"Bleaching is very effective in moderation, and it's safe in moderation," says Dr. Jablow. "It's when you're bleaching all the time, beyond what is recommended -- that's when you run into problems."
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