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Unusual Dental Traditions and Trends From Around the Globe

Dentistry has been around for thousands of years. Many cultures see tooth health as a reflection of a person’s overall status. As a result, attempts to improve, fix, or adorn teeth became a thriving practice that led to colorful dental traditions and innovations all over the globe.

From blackening teeth to fashion braces, many people turn their teeth into something more than an instrument for biting or chewing food. Teeth become a means to display wealth, status, or beauty. Among the most notable practices recorded in history include the following entries of unusual dental traditions and trends from around the globe.

Grills Pop In and Out of History

A common way to add bling to teeth with with decorative grills.

Grills are one of the most extravagant ways to dress up teeth. This accessory is more of a fashion statement than an actual device that can help teeth. Using gold, silver, or other precious metal, dentists shape the metal over the person’s teeth to create a decorative cover. Grills are usually snap on, but it’s not uncommon for people to have procedures that permanently attach them.

The latest grills renaissance came at the behest of the famous rappers of the early 2000s. Nelly created a rap tribute to jeweled teeth entitled “Grillz” and shot an accompanying music video that featured more than 70 close-up shots of gold and diamond-studded teeth. This led to a cultural upheaval where many hip-hop fans, celebrities, and of course, rappers, began displaying grills as part of everyday fashion. Fifteen years later after “Grillz” came out, many Americans still continue the tradition.

However, grills aren’t a new phenomenon at all. They originated thousands of years ago as part of the dental traditions of Etruscans, who flourished between 200-800 BC. Rich females were the first to sport grills. Unlike today’s grills, Etruscan women paid a bigger price for the privilege. They often had their front teeth removed in order to insert a gold band holding replacement teeth. Dentists have no role in this fashion statement, but rather goldsmiths. While definitely eye-catching, the Estruscan grills didn’t do much in the biting and chewing department.

Teeth Blackening in Different Parts of the World

The majority of cultures worldwide find white, straight teeth a testament to perfection. However, there are some cultures that find value in the practice of blackening their teeth. Apart from projecting an image of beauty, maturity, and refinement, teeth blackening can help teeth survive into old age. The blackening compound, usually a mixture of iron fillings and vinegar, acts as a modern dental sealant that prevents the formation of cavities.

Blackening, known as ohaguro in Japan, is also held in high esteem in many Southeast Asian and Oceanic cultures. Blackened teeth also became popular in certain tribes in Peru and Ecuador. However, its practice during the Meiji period in Japan is where blackened teeth made the biggest impression among westerners. Many of the earlier Western visitors to Japan during the Edo period mistakenly thought ohaguro disfigured women deliberately, and thus helped them avoid premarital relationships. In truth, Japan loved the color black in nature, and ohaguro signaled the transition of a carefree, single young woman into a responsible, married woman.

Yaeba, The Trend of Crooked Teeth

crooked teeth trendy
Crooked teeth make a potential mate more approachable in Japanese culture.

Japan continues its counterculture ideas with this next entry in our guide to dental traditions around the world. In stark contrast to many cultures paying money to have their teeth whitened and straightened, Japan celebrates Yaeba, or the beauty in imperfect teeth. According to beauty blogger Michelle Phan, “It’s not like here, where perfect, straight, picket-fence teeth are considered beautiful. In Japan, in fact, crooked teeth are actually endearing, and it shows that a girl is not perfect. And, in a way, men find that more approachable than someone who is too overly perfect.”

To say Yaeba is popular in Japan is an understatement. Men find it an endearing quality in the opposite sex, while celebrities revel in having crooked teeth. If you’re still not convinced about its popularity, consider the fact that some Japanese women pay dentists to modify their straight teeth into something more crooked. This effect is achieved by creating and placing plastic fronts on real teeth.

TikTok and The Resurgence of Vampire Fangs

vampire fangs dental trend
Do NOT trust TikTok for dental advice! You’ve been warned!

Popular social media app TikTok is known for its many, oftentimes crazy challenges. While the challenges usually involve dancing to a handpicked song, they can also include some genuinely crazy stunts. This includes the corn cob challenge, where rapper Jason Derulo famously lost a tooth trying to eat corn attached to a spinning drill bit.

One TikTok challenge that made the rounds in 2020 was the DIY Vampire Fangs challenge. Inspired by the upcoming Halloween celebrations, this challenge involved users gluing costume vampire fangs to their teeth. The compelling part about the challenge is watching the challengers struggle to remove the vampire teeth after the stunt. Many people found out to their dismay that super glue or nail glue will put up a fight before giving up their adhesive strength. Needless to say, many dentists condemned the trend. Many advised against the challenge, saying nail glue is not only poisonous, but it also won’t come off.

The Rise of the London Gap

London gap dental trend
The prominent front tooth gap is a trendy sought-after look in some circles.

Similar to the Japanese Yaeba look, the London Gap also celebrates teeth imperfection via people proudly displaying their tooth gaps. This trend is inspired by celebrity models Georgia May Jagger and Lara Stone, who sported the “London Look” that featured their gap-tooth prominently. Since then, many 20-something women have rushed to their neighborhood dental office to sign up for cosmetic services to enhance tooth gaps.

Known medically as diastema, gaps often appear between the two upper front teeth. This results from a mismatch between the size of the jaw bone and the size of the teeth, which forces the teeth to spread out further. Whereas a few years ago, patients wanted their gaps closed, many are now visiting their dentist for help in making their gap more prominent. Why do people find it beautiful? Gaps enhance the natural look, which many trendy people find more acceptable socially than an obviously fake enhancement job.

Teeth Sharpening

Teeth sharpening is a long standing tradition in many cultures around the world.

Many cultures file their teeth for spiritual and identification purposes. Countries such as Indonesia, Mexico, and Congo include this body modification process as part of their dental traditions. In Bali, a ritual called Potong gigi involves filing down canines of Balinese teenagers. They believe that the procedure eliminated negative ideas such as anger and jealousy: in essence, filing them reduces the chances of feeling them. Filing teeth is also believed to spiritually separate a person from their ancestors and shield them from animalistic tendencies. Having filed teeth is often the indication that young Balinese have completed their coming of age ritual. This means they are now adults ready for marriage.

In other cultures, filing teeth into shaper versions enhances the beauty of the wearer. The Herrero tribe believes that a woman will have a more difficult time attracting a lover if she does not undergo teeth sharpening. The Mentawai tribe, also from Africa, also agrees with beautification through teeth sharpening. If the tribe members do not perform their ritualistic modifications, their souls might find their bodies unattractive and leave abruptly.

Dental Tattoos

Running out of spaces to get a tattoo? If this is the case, would you consider a tattooth? Also known as dental stain tattoos, it’s a growing trend among the younger set where body tattoos aren't enough. The procedure isn’t as painful as regular tattoos, and not everybody can get a dental stain tattoo. It’s reserved for patients who are about to have a dental crown fitted. For an additional fee ranging between $75 to $200, patients can opt to have their design etched or inked into the dental crown prior to fitting. Dentists won’t allow a normal inking procedure directly applied to teeth for fear of permanent damage. Besides, tattoos work by staining the underside of the skin with pigment. The same procedure won’t work with teeth enamel.

For those unwilling to part with additional money or unsure if they want a tattoo by the next day, they can opt to purchase temporary stickers, designs, or jewelry that sticks to the tooth. It’s not the same thing, which is a good idea compared to permanently scarring your enamel with a permanent tattoo.

Fashion Braces

Fake braces for fashion’s sake are a popular but dangerous obsession in some countries.

Fashion braces are one of many dental trends that won’t receive a recommendation from any sane dentist. This is because it consists of selling cheap knockoff braces adorned with popular culture designs. Original orthodontic braces already carry a risk of tooth decay, decalcification, or bacteria buildup if not properly taken care of. That risk gets magnified a hundredfold when a person wears fake braces installed by sales staff.

Fashion braces are illegal, unauthorized, and unsafe. However, Thai teenagers blew the craze up into epic proportions. They want these fashion braces for two reasons: they want to emulate their celebrity idols who wear braces, but they cannot afford the real thing. Apparently, the demand is so great that manufacturers began producing fake braces designed with popular characters. Sadly, some teenagers already died from wearing this fad. The Thai government has already made moves to ban the product. Like everything else that received a ban, a bustling black market has opened up to sell these dangerous faux braces.

Dental Traditions or Cosmetic Dentistry?

There you have it. These dental traditions range from enhancing the spiritual side to a full-on scam to make a quick buck. Before considering any procedure that can permanently alter your teeth, consult your trusted dentist if the procedure you want is safe, effective, and won’t subject you to unnecessary risks.

If improving your appearance is something you want to consider, your dentist can make the proper recommendations on how to enhance your smile or improve your bite. Ask them if they carry Sterngold products, one of the most trusted names in restorative dentistry. This way, you can be assured that any procedure uses high quality, safe, yet affordable products. Visit the Sterngold website or contact them to learn more.