By Ameet Sachdev
CHICAGO - Joanna Znamirowska is dialing up the brightness of her smile. Last year, the manicurist at a Gold Coast salon spent her hard-earned dollars having her teeth bleached with a take-home kit from her dentist.
"I never had the best teeth," she said. "And I'm the kind of person who always smiles and laughs. I feel more comfortable smiling now."
Znamirowska, 30, said she has no regrets about the cost, about $300, and has recommended the treatment to her friends.
More and more people want a smile as bright as Znamirowska's. But not everyone is willing to shell out the big bucks at the dentist. That's created a huge marketing opportunity for consumer-products companies, from giants like Procter & Gamble Co. to smaller regional players.
The evidence is at the local drugstore. Walk down the dental aisle and the shelves are lined with every whitening product imaginable: gels and strips, toothpastes, mouthwashes, dental floss - even chewing gum.
Chalk it up to consumers' never-ending search for nonsurgical ways to recapture their youth. Aging baby boomers are trying everything from exercising more to injecting a poisonous toxin called Botox into their foreheads to smooth out wrinkles.
"None of us wants to grow old; that's no mystery," said Dr. Ted Siegel, a Chicago dentist. "Teeth whitening lets us look our best, just like hair coloring, weight lifting and dieting."
Dental experts caution, however, that some of the over-the-counter products are not as effective as professional bleaching treatments. Whitening toothpastes, for instance, help remove surface stains from teeth but don't get at stains beneath the surface, said Dr. Clifford Whall, director of the American Dental Association's seal of acceptance program.
Still, whitening products are catching on.
Sales of toothpastes with a whitening claim jumped 22 percent, to $570.3 million, in the year ended March 23 at supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchants, according to scanner data tracked by ACNielsen. (ACNielsen data does not include sales from Wal-Mart stores.) Because of the whitening products' inroads, sales of all other toothpastes fell 10.5 percent, to $780.1 million.
The whitening toothpaste category started from scratch about eight years ago when Unilever NV introduced Mentadent with baking soda and peroxide. Consumers snapped it up, and competitors took notice. Most of the products contain mild abrasives or enzymes that help dissolve stains from years of smoking and drinking coffee, tea or red wine.
Whitening toothpaste sales are so dazzling that Colgate-Palmolive Co., one of the leading toothpaste marketers, now has 12 products that carry the claim. P&G's Crest has five such toothpastes.
The demand for pearly whites has swept up smaller players as well. Den-Mat Corp., of Santa Maria, Calif., saw sales of its premium-priced Rembrandt toothpastes grow 20 percent, to $33.9 million, in the 52 weeks ended March 24, according to Information Resources Inc.
The surge in toothpastes has been outstripped by over-the-counter bleaching products, led by Crest Whitestrips, a $44 whitening kit that started hitting shelves last May.
P&G projects at least $200 million in first-year retail sales for Whitestrips, making it one of its most successful launches in the past five years. Thanks to Whitestrips, sales in the dental accessories category, which includes dental night guards and floss handles, soared nearly 80 percent last year, to $253 million.
By developing the Whitestrips, P&G attacked what was once the exclusive domain of dentists. The strips are coated with a gel that contains the same ingredient, hydrogen peroxide, that dentists use in their bleaching treatments.
"We used the Whitestrips when they first came out, and they work," said Dr. Peter Yaman, a clinical professor at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. "It's not something we like to tell everybody."
Yaman and other dentists are quick to point out some possible drawbacks in the Whitestrips. The strips only cover the front six teeth, whereas a dentist-supervised treatment covers the whole mouth. The product also is one-size fits all, so if a consumer has misaligned teeth, the strips may not uniformly cover them.
P&G is so confident that Whitestrips will work it offers a money-back guarantee. In a sign of its success, Whitestrips has become a target for shoplifters, retailers say. Some Walgreens stores have even removed the product from the shelves and placed it behind the pharmacy counter.
While the $44 price tag is unheard of in the oral-care aisle of the drugstore, Whitestrips are still less expensive than going to dentist for a bleaching treatment. That's why Dina Graham, 30, of Plano, Texas, tried them for the first time last year. The human-resources specialist liked the product so much she's going to use it again before she goes to a wedding in May. She even encouraged the bride-to-be to try Whitestrips.
P&G has relied on word-of-mouth advertising to build buzz for Whitestrips. But the product could get a big boost if it receives the ADA's seal of approval. P&G plans to apply for the seal in the near future, a company spokesman said.
So far, the ADA (www.ada.org) has endorsed some professional bleaching products dispensed by dentists and a few whitening toothpastes. The seal means the products are considered safe and efficient after, on average, two to six months of independent testing.
The growth in the whitening category has companies coming up with unusual solutions. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. recently introduced Trident White gum that claims to whiten teeth. P&G recently teamed up with Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. to produce confectionery products with oral-care benefits. Their firstborn: Orbit White, which contains the same ingredient in Crest Whitening toothpastes.
The companies conducted clinical studies that found that the gum removed stains "at a significant level" after four weeks of frequent chewing, meaning two pellets, four times a day, said Shari Matras, senior marketing manager for oral-care products at Wrigley. That could become an expensive remedy, considering a 12-pellet packet sells for $1.49.
But Matras pointed out that the gums, like the whitening toothpastes, are not meant to replace a professional bleaching treatment. "But after people go to the dentist," she said, "we want to help them keep their teeth white."
© 2002, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.