Oral Health and Dental Care
History of England

Why do English people have bad teeth?

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2013-01-08 13:35:49
2013-01-08 13:35:49

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English teeth are no better or worse than any other teeth! What is true, however, is that many British people (Scots, Welsh, some Irish, & English!) have a deeply ingrained hostility to teeth straightening, whitening, & "cosmetic" dentistry in general. Exactly why this might be is hard to answer, but it certainly has something to do with the aversion to being seen as "flash" - showy/ self-promoting.

Second, since about the C18th the British have been massive consumers of sugar & tobacco. This, combined with poor diets (lots of carbs, limited calcium & vitamins for many) & the habit of drinking lots of sugared tea, resulted in poor dental health/ hygiene, especially among the poorer sections of society. The American perception of "bad British teeth" largely originated during WW2 when they mixed with large numbers of relatively poor, malnourished Britons who'd never had any proper dental care in their lives.

Things started to improve after WW2: the National Health Service (established 1948) provided free/ low cost essential dental care for all, & vastly improved ante natal care (including free nutritional supplements for pregnant women, especially if poor), & free milk for schoolchildren. This did much to offset the dental health deficit, especially among the poorest third of the population.

Third, although the National Health Service provided (& still does) free dental care for minors, this was generally limited to maintenance of functionality - orthodontics was only generally available if absolutely necessary for medical reasons. "Cosmetic" teeth straightening was (& still is) a private service, until quite recently offered only by a few dentists (mainly in larger towns & cities), & very expensive, so few people regarded it as worthwhile, or indeed affordable!

Fourth, as already pointed out, flouridation of the water supply is uncommon in Britain - because many people are suspicious of it; it's politically sensitive. Indeed, until quite recently (1960s) most toothpaste brands did not contain flouride as standard!

Things are, however, changing fast. Today, most educated Britons visit the dentist (& hygienist!) twice a year; brush & floss regularly; have orthodontic treatment to straighten teeth etc etc.. Orthodontics are "mainstream"; the service is readily available, & many people are far more willing & able to pay for it. All toothpastes contain flouride, & many people use mouthwashes daily.

Improved diet also plays a part, as does the massive fall off in tobacco smoking, especially among the educated middle classes. Increasing numbers of people (especially the younger ones) now regard teeth whitening etc as normal, & if fillings are necessary most will pay extra for white ones, rather than the "traditional" grey amalgam types. It is now simply untrue that British teeth are universally bad.

I'm 50, & was fortunate to have parents who were "dentally aware", so grew up taking flouride tablets, using flouride toothpaste, & visiting the dentist routinely. I'm also lucky to have naturally straight, well spaced teeth. Result: I have few fillings, & "regular" clean teeth - American style! My younger brother had orthodontic treatment in childhood to straighten a few irregularities, & now has perfect gnashers, & not a filling in his head. We were not typical of many kids of our generation, but these days such is very common. Very few of my school students have any fillings, & most have straight, white teeth.

As in America, however, there remains a social divide in dental health & care. Many poorer and/ or less educated Britons still do have dreadful teeth: they don't brush properly; diets contain way too much sugar; many smoke heavily, & dentists will only be visited in an emergency, if at all! There's also a certain kind of Briton (often members of the old upper class, or intellectuals/ academics) who takes a perverse delight in not having well maintained teeth! I don't know why this is, but it has something to do with the deep seated cultural belief that anything beyond minimal bodily maintenance is vain & self indulgent. Ironically, such people often spend £ thousands on medical/ dental care for their pet dogs, horses etc, including routine procedures (hygienist dealing with tartar etc) they'd never "indulge in" for themselves or their children! There's no reason to it - just a typical example of the eccentricity of a certain recognisable "British type"!

Finally, whilst agreeing that British teeth in general have been "bad" by comparison with American, there's also a lot of denial & crude stereotyping on the American side. I've seen many Americans with terrible teeth, especially in remote rural & impoverished inner city areas: pretty much, I think, for the same reasons many poorer Brits often have bad teeth. I've also come across more than a few middle class/ educated Americans who clearly were no more convinced of the necessity of orthodontics, teeth whitening etc than are their British equivalents! So, yes, whilst typically the average American tends to have better maintained teeth than many Britons, it is by no means universally the case, & in recent decades many Britons have been moving steadily towards the American norm of dental care/ hygiene.

It remains, however, broadly true that American society is more "image" driven than British (although this is changing fast!), & therefore, in general, there are far greater social expectations/ pressures to "show a good set of teeth" to the world. Certainly, it's rare in the States for anyone in the public domain (TV presenters, politicians, professionals of all types etc) not to have straight, pearly white teeth! Tony Blair, in contrast, felt no need to have his "snaggle tooth" straightened; it was no electoral handicap; indeed, had he had it straightened, it might even have done him harm with some voters! That said, many British politicians (& certainly most TV presenters) do now have teeth straightened/ whitened, including Gordon Brown!

AnswerThe Answer that English people have bad teeth due to The Roman and Anglo-Saxon DNA mixing is rediculous. People from Australia, Canada and America aren't considered to have bad teeth, yet most of them descend from British colonies. Also, if you use two races mixing genes as an excuse for the myth of British bad teeth, then you can use it for any population. I'm pretty sure that most people have many ancestors that were from different places.
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