More DC-Area Kids and Teens Are Asking About Teeth Whitening

In a world of social media filters, it can be hard to remember what real teeth actually look like.

Plastic toy teeth against pastel background. Photograph by Ivan101/Getty images.

Cavities and crooked teeth are standard fare for pediatric dentists. But in recent years, practitioners who tend to children and teens say another question has been popping up more often: When can I start whitening my teeth?

“I think I get that question almost every day,” says Dr. Elizabeth Shin of Bethesda Chevy Chase Pediatric Dentistry. “It’s one of the biggest concerns they have, aside from orthodontics and the position of their teeth.” Shin estimates that a decade ago she heard the question fewer than five times a year. Along with an increase in queries, Shin has noticed a decrease in the age of kids expressing interest. It used to be primarily teenagers, but now children as young as ten ask about whitening.

As with many adolescent anxieties related to appearance, social platforms play a role. “I think there’s definitely more comparative awareness of kids based on social media,” says Dr. Karen Benitez of Chevy Chase Pediatric Dentistry. “They tend to notice things about each other and themselves at a much younger age than we would have. I think it’s been more ingrained in them, because of image after image that either has a filter or a lot of enhancement of self.”

In a 2022 University of Michigan survey, parents who said their children were self-conscious about looks were twice as likely to report that their child was more influenced by social media than in-person interactions. In that same survey, 18 percent of parents reported that their child was self-conscious about their teeth. It doesn’t help that on Tik-Tok and Instagram, the use of whitening filters makes it seem as if everyone has sparkling chompers. Plus, veneers continue to proliferate around Hollywood, and influencers—once lauded for authenticity—are also getting the coverings, filling screens with an endless march of straight, bright teeth. “[Kids] don’t realize that these models or celebrities have veneers,” says Dr. Angela Austin of Alexandria Children’s Dentistry.

It’s not just the kids asking about whitening. According to Austin, parents are inquiring about the treatment for their children, too. “When those front teeth start to come in, between seven and nine years old, parents will notice they’re a lot yellower than the primary teeth were,” she says. Austin reassures them that the difference is normal and due to the thicker enamel on permanent teeth, making them appear darker than the milky-white primary teeth.

Even as they’re helping families understand the way real teeth look, dentists we spoke to say they don’t want to dismiss a child’s concern outright. “Sometimes kids might have a predisposition to coloring of teeth that is less favorable than what they’ve seen,” says Benitez. “Out of respect for kids, I can understand where they’re coming from. I think it’s a matter of case-by-case selection.” For her, this involves listening and finding the root of their concern. “Helping them reflect upon what’s going on [in their life] that is translating into this bleaching desire and understanding the emotional background behind all of it.” Even so, she won’t move forward if a patient still has mostly baby teeth.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry updated guidelines around whitening for children, noting that the organization “recognizes the desire for dental whitening by pediatric and adolescent patients.” The AAPD supports procedures that are safe and effective but discourages full arch treatments on kids who still have baby teeth. Tooth and gum sensitivity can be an issue for some children, says Austin, and whitening too early could potentially cause teeth to be mismatched in color once fully grown. However, if a kid has reached 14 or 15 years old, the risks are low. “If they truly want to do it, there’s not much harm there,” Austin says.

Still, she’s a proponent of helping kids learn to love their smiles as they are, even if they aren’t the picture of an Instagram filter. “I am not a fan of everybody’s smile looking the same,” Austin says. “I love a bit of uniqueness to the teeth.”

Top Pediatric Dentists

This list of dentists, voted best by their peers for treating children and teens, first appeared in our March 2023 issue as part of a list of top dentists in all specialties.

Melanie Acosta

Silver Spring; 301-989-8994.

Amy H. Adair

Burke; 703-440-9701.

Felix J. Aguto

Waldorf; 301-206-1993; also Prince Frederick.

Angela L. Austin

Alexandria; 571-356-9843.

Girish Banaji

Falls Church; 703-849-1300.

LaToya M. Barham

Springfield; 703-455-1339.

Reza Beheshti

Silver Spring; 240-752-8822; also North Bethesda, Rockville.

Karen Benitez

Chevy Chase; 301-272-1246.

Richee K. Berry

Bowie; 301-383-0959.

Derek Blank

Bethesda; 301-363-9026.

Sara E. Bunin

Burke; 571-933-8076.

Keith F. Camper

Laurel; 301-691-4620.

Robert D. Camps

Silver Spring; 301-989-8994.

Jessica Chorvinsky

Silver Spring; 301-989-8994.

Charlie O. Coulter

DC; 202-966-0045.

Liliana Cuervo

Montgomery Village; 301-869-5437.

Mina Dadkhah

Alexandria; 703-417-9722; also Sterling.

Jeffrey P. Davis

McLean; 703-848-8444.

Jayne E. Delaney

Alexandria; 703-370-5437.

Shailja D. Ensor

Rockville; 301-881-6170.

Neda Etessam

McLean; 703-821-1633.

Jena Fields

Silver Spring; 301-989-8994.

Sarah Ganjavi

Vienna; 703-938-6600.

Tiffany Gavin-Walker

Silver Spring; 301-989-8994.

Roselyne N. Gichana

Falls Church; 703-533-5511.

John Han

Fairfax; 703-383-3434.

Heidi A. Herbst

Sterling; 571-446-0355.

Avionne A. Hill

DC; 202-873-9696.

Andrew I. Horng

Rockville; 301-881-0220.

Gema Island

Tysons; 703-790-1320.

Rishita A. Jaju

Reston; 571-350-3663.

Debra L. Jeffries

DC; 202-584-3848.

Neda Kalantar

Reston; 703-435-1500.

Jonathan Konz

Ashburn; 703-687-1581.

Gary R. Kramer

Burke; 571-933-8076.

Alan K. Kuwabara

DC; 202-244-6111.

Naveen Kwatra

Gaithersburg; 240-981-4020.

Lauren Lewis

Rockville; 301-881-6170.

Siamak S. Majidi

DC; 202-849-3292.

Peter Markov

Arlington; 703-962-7814.

Nahee Williams McDonald

Springfield; 703-455-1339.

Niloofar Mofakhami

Oakton; 703-255-3424.

Carlos H. Monsalve

Herndon; 703-481-1115.

Ricardo A. Perez

Chevy Chase; 301-804-6022.

Gina C. Pham

Woodbridge; 703-490-5050; also Dale City.

Roya Pilcher

DC; 202-237-2833.

Christine M. Reardon

Arlington; 703-579-0367.

Jessica E. Rubin

DC; 202-545-7200.

Andrew J. Shannon

Vienna; 703-319-8370.

Elizabeth Shin

Bethesda; 301-900-3580.

Heather Sholander

Bethesda; 301-433-7837.

Emmanuel Skordalakis

Sterling; 703-421-3000.

Rory N. Smith

Alexandria; 703-370-5437.

Carla Stephan

Sterling; 703-421-3000.

Adam H. Ta

Alexandria; 703-922-4000.

Ruksana Talaksi

Centreville; 703-266-9090.

Cris A. Ternisky

McLean; 703-356-1875.

My Tran

Alexandria; 703-922-4000.

David M. Treff

Burke; 703-712-8077.

Jack Weil

Vienna; 703-255-2573.

Claudia N. Williams-Conerly

Silver Spring; 301-565-3536.

Valerie V. Woo

Ashburn; 703-729-7005.

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor