Should Non-Dentists Be Allowed to Whiten Teeth?

Should Non-Dentists Be Allowed to Whiten Teeth?

One of the hottest topics in dentistry right now is professional tooth whitening services provided by non-dentist locations: salons, spas, even mall kiosks. Laws vary by state as to who can offer such services. Some states, like Ohio and Illinois, allow anyone to open a tooth whitenting business; others, like Connecticut and Alabama, allow whitening to be performed only by licensed dentists, hygienists and dental assistants.

The glaring disparity between state laws is evident in a recent lawsuit filed against the Alabama Board of Dental Examiners by North Carolina resident Keith Westphal. A non-dental professional who owns a tooth whitening business in Mooresville, North Carolina, Westphal planned to open a similar operation in Huntsville, Alabama, assuming the laws governing his establishment were the same in both states. To his dismay, however, he discovered that non-dentists in Alabama who offer teeth whitening services can be sentenced to a year in prison and fined up to $5,000 for each offense. Rather than abandon his plans, Westphal opted to sue to overturn the law and was joined in his lawsuit by Joyce Osborn Wilson, an Alabama resident whose business selling tooth whitening supplies was shut down in 2006.

The argument against laws limiting whitening services to dental professionals is that the whitening process is virtually harmless — compared to home hair removal or bleaching — and the products are legally available for consumers to purchase online or in drug stores and supermarkets for use at home without any supervision whatsoever. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates these products and considers them cosmetics, so they don’t require a prescription. Non-dentist tooth whitening entrepreneurs claim that dental industry insiders have been pressuring states to exclude them just so they don’t have to share any of the $11 billion whitening industry.

On the other side of the argument, dental professionals claim that whitening is a dental procedure that should be performed by people trained to care for teeth. They feel that consumers need a dentist’s expertise when deciding whether or not to opt for whitening; a dental examination can identify a patient’s specific problem and can determine if a whitening procedure is likely to help or not. Their opinion is that whitening procedures can indeed be harmful — with side effects like tooth sensitivity and gum irritation — particularly if the person in charge doesn’t recognize oral problems like tooth decay or gum disease before applying the harsh bleaching material in whiteners.

So, which side is right? It depends on your point of view. Whether or not their state allows non-dental professionals to perform tooth whitening, consumers should exercise good judgment in choosing whether to get a procedure done and where and how to do it. They should look for the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance when choosing a whitening product and consult with their dentist to determine the best path for their individual need — whether or not the dentist actually performs the procedure.

(Sources: Institute for Justice,, Muscatine Journal, Wisconsin Dental Association)