The Pains of DIY Dental Care

How I learned that we should always leave cosmetic procedures to professionals—no matter how easy it is to buy dentistry tools online

Some would call it an error in judgment. Others, a miscalculation. Alan Atlas, my dentist, will likely call it “money for the college fund.”

The story is this. A woman—reasonably attractive, youthful, generally pleased with her appearance—goes to the dentist for “scaling.” Though her whimsical imagination conjures a teensy climber rappelling off her front teeth, the reality is a giant be-goggled face of a dental hygienist who’s hovering over the woman and tearing her gums away from her teeth, jots of pink and red springing out of her mouth like mini Skittles. It is, to say the least, a disconcerting procedure—so much so that they do it in zones, so that the woman has to make another appointment.

Two weeks later, the woman—oh, screw it, the woman is me, and this isn’t a Jennifer Egan novel—two weeks later, I come back to the dentist for the next round. To pass the time in the waiting room, I go through the binders of before-and-after photos, which reveal an unbelievable number of tooth-related cosmetic problems I never knew existed. This is troubling. It’s as though you’re reading Allure and flipping through articles—“Problem Abs,” “Hair Frizz,” “Pedicure Solutions,” “Perfect Eyebrows”—and then you see “Kibberty Bits.” You’re shocked. What the hell are kibberty bits? The article reads: “Every woman has to keep an eye on her kibberty bits as she ages. Drooping kibberty bits can ruin a look—but maintenance isn’t easy, or cheap.” Christ.

That’s what happened to me with the tooth photos.

Important background: I have very straight upper teeth, thanks to years of orthodonture (my bottom teeth are slightly askew, but let’s move along before my parents start crying). My upper teeth (seen below, circa 2004) are not too horsey, not too small. They’re HWP, as they say in the Personals. I assumed they’d ever be thus.

As it turns out, as one ages the bottom of the tooth goes from being smooth and even to ridged. I had no idea this could even happen. The bottom edges of my teeth have always been perfectly smooth. They still were. Weren’t they?

I ran to the mirror when I got home. The bottom of my front teeth were not, in fact, perfectly smooth anymore. Wow. Face to face with my own mortality. I stared for a long time until I realized my strange grimace might be giving me wrinkles. Also, my dog was scratching at the door. How I envied her: an old lady with terrible teeth, but she didn’t care.

I was back at the dentist in two weeks for another scaling. I didn’t mention the ridges. What’s the point? Without dental coverage, I knew it would be a long time before I could come back for even routine care. That was a big enough problem to solve. I figured I’d watch the hygienist really closely, as if she were doing an e-learning course. I watched her gestures and noted the tools she used. I asked questions, too, like, “How coaghe ya uweag thagh toogh fa thagh paght?” It was a real learning experience.

A few weeks later, I bought some dental tools for home use. (If you go online, you can become a dentist in about four minutes, tool-wise.) I chose the DenTek Dental Pick and Scaler. I tried to remember the hygienist’s movements, but I couldn’t stop fixating on those two front teeth and their goddamned ridges. I was practically snaggletoothed!

Perhaps you can see where this is headed. I was already doing DIY oral hygiene, so why not DIY cosmetic dentistry? After all, dentists simply use an electric file to smooth out the ridges. It takes a matter of minutes.

I took a metal nail file and rubbed it horizontally against the bottom of my right front tooth. It was an unpleasant sensation somewhere between nails-on-a-chalkboard and nail-file-on-front-tooth. It made a strange sound that wasn’t familiar to my world of aural experience. Little white crunchies sprung out of my face; they would later be identified as pieces of tooth. They were tiny, almost cellular. But their absence in my mouth have increased the ridges exponentially.

Now when I look in the mirror, not only am I faced with my own mortality, I’m faced with my own stupidity. Or lack of judgment, at the very least. I guess that’s an age-related change as well.