Society's Smile: What We Use To Fill Our Rotten Bones

This will very easily be one of the weirdest blogs I will ever write, but I’m going somewhere with it – I promise. 

Working in internet marketing, one of my duties has been blogging for dentist websites. While some may think this can be boring, I’ve found that my dentist clients are some of my favorites. Writing for these dentist blogs and writing press releases for dental practices has required a large amount of research into the most modern trends in dentistry. Just like in pop culture and other industries, looking at how customer demand has steered what the dental industry has come to offer has provided an interesting social commentary in itself. Studying what people use to fill in the rotten holes in their teeth has just as much to say about what people are using to fill in the rotting holes in their personality. 

When one begins to dig into the history of dentistry, it’s primitive nature can almost induce the gag reflex. Between using manual tools that look like something from a medieval torture rack to methods used for anesthesia (if the patient had the luxury), the immensely unsanitary and tremendously painful practice still had it’s moments of wisdom. For most of the past 2,000+ years, when someone had a cavity in need of filling or tooth damage in need of repair, the most popular choice was typically gold. Either in the form of a molded casting or a foil, gold has been widely used for its endurance. It’s not poisonous (unlike the lead used in the framework of George Washington’s famous dentures) and it molds easily, it doesn’t wear down, corrode, or break in the mouth with regular chewing. Gold dental work was so popular that wealthy nobles in many cultures would have healthy teeth filed down and gold dental crowns installed as a status symbol. For those who could afford it, gold was a symbol of longevity. 

Silver mercury filling.

As the science of dentistry has evolved, more affordable materials were developed to keep cavities filled for less. The use of dental amalgam was brought into popularity because of it’s malleable nature, strength, and price. Many continue to confuse dental amalgam with “silver” fillings. While silver is one of the metals used in the alloy, most of a filling or crown made of dental amalgam is one of the most toxic metals in existence – mercury. Mercury fillings are also known to expand with age and cause the tooth to crack. Though many different studies have found dental amalgam fillings containing mercury to be hazardous to the patient’s health, they are still a widely available option in most parts of the world because of their affordability and convenience. In addition to these filling being seen as a health risk to those who have them in their mouths, special concerns about mercury being released into the air from cremation have arisen. The temperatures necessary to cremate a body far exceed that of the boiling point of mercury, requiring crematoriums to install advanced air filtration systems or the removal of amalgam fillings from bodies prior to cremation. Dental amalgam containing mercury has been banned in countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

The most aesthetically-pleasing options for filling cavities and repairing teeth are composite resin and porcelain for ceramic fillings. To date, these are some of the most popular means of filling cavities and fixing damage because of their ability to match the natural color of one’s teeth. Though the best option for those who desire a natural look, these both are the weakest options. Porcelain fillings are known for breaking (if you’ve ever accidentally hit a toilet with a wrench while fixing it, it’s kind of like that – only in your mouth) and composite resin fillings are known to shrink and allow for exposure of the tissue beneath it. Do they look natural? Yes, but at the cost of being relatively brittle in comparison to other materials. 

While all of this seems to just be Dentistry 101 for many, the reasoning behind the lack of gold fillings and crowns really stuck out to me – gold is not as aesthetically appealing as other materials. The material that people used to coat perfectly healthy teeth as a status symbol because of it’s strength and value once upon a time is now seen as unbecoming to the point of having it’s use all but discontinued. Not only is the use of this substance in dental work all but absent from modern dentistry, but patients would rather fill their mouths with mercury – a substance that has been linked to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s. If that is not their choice for cosmetic reasons, a more expensive and less durable substance is used to achieve a more natural look. 

Sometimes I wonder what aliens in outer space must think when they look down on us. Possibly “Look, these creatures would rather fill the holes in their rotten teeth with a poison substance to save a buck or inferior material substance in order to be more aesthetically pleasing. What kind of people they must be!”