The Tooth of the Matter: What’s With the Stereotypes About British Dental Care?

Austin Powers' jaundiced grin has not helped Britain's rep for poor dental hygiene. (Photo: New Line)

Austin Powers’ jaundiced grin has not helped Britain’s rep for poor dental hygiene. (Photo: New Line)

It’s the best-known cliché about Brits, and in the U.S. it would probably be the characteristic most people would mention before politeness, emotional repression and tea-drinking. More recently it’s kept its hold in the imagination thanks to Austin Powers and Ricky Gervais, though the examples go back much further in time — and all lead to the idea that Brits have bad teeth. Dreadful teeth. Cartoon-villain teeth, in fact.

Alternatively, many Brits would say that Americans often sport a set of blindingly-white pearlies that seem almost too big – and too numerous – for their mouths, a near-equine dental collection of movie star quality. The Kennedy family and the smile of Julia Roberts come to mind, as well as the unnatural gleam common in television actors and salesmen.

But where did this cliché come from? It is true that Brits eat more chocolate than Americans and a recent report showed that more than a quarter of British five-year-olds have tooth decay, but then the U.S. is a world leader in obesity and offers an unparalleled choice of sugar-heavy soft drinks and XXL-sized food.

Perhaps it all goes back to the introduction of the NHS in England in 1948. Before then, stories of aunts and grandmothers having all their teeth removed for convenience’s sake were common, so was it the U.S. forces coming to the U.K. during WWII and seeing — thanks in part to food shortages, rationing and poor nutrition — gap-toothed deficiencies?

NHS treatment was to keep your teeth healthy rather than gorgeous, where as the pay culture for dental care in the U.S. perhaps made it more likely to include “correction.” American children certainly see braces as a teenage rite of passage, so maybe their parents said, “We’re paying this much for little Johnny, we may as well get it all done at once.”

While dentures and orthodontics certainly aren’t new inventions by any means, near-invisible braces (almost ubiquitous on entertainers these days) are, and it was only recently that teeth-whitening strips were deemed socially acceptable in the U.K. Is that British shyness at work, a desire not to be “showing off” an unnaturally perfect set of gnashers?

The movies could play a part too. As the primary source of entertainment for most of the 20th century, seeing the stars of the day with wonderful smiles must have had an effect on the audience. On the screen, homegrown American talent as well as stars flown in from England were regularly sent to have their teeth straightened — Cary Grant famously had a dodgy front tooth, as did, later, a young Tom Cruise — and now movie stars are the gold standard for white teeth. That is, unless they’re Brits. Or villains. Come to think of it, they’re often both.

As for other popular culture moments, the invasion of the Beatles didn’t exactly bring show-stopping teeth (Ringo’s were iffy, and Paul had a chipped tooth after a motorbike accident) and then Monty Python and Benny Hill on television? They certainly added to the cliché about English men’s love of cross-dressing, but their teeth weren’t exactly dolled up.

Even heading across the U.S. border into Mexico you find that the people there call bad teeth dientes Ingles, though many people love British teeth no matter what they’re like — none more so than Dr. Michael Zuk, who purchased one of John Lennon’s teeth for the equivalent of close to $31,000 in 2011, and now has a website touting his idea to clone the DNA and bring the Liverpudlian songster back to life!

So what do you think, readers of Mind The Gap? Why do these stereotypes about British teeth exist? Who most embodies the idea of “bad British teeth”? Let us know!

See more:
10 Things That Happen When Brits Meet in America
10 Tips for Brits on Surviving the U.S. Healthcare System
10 Things British Expats Should Leave in the U.K.

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.

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  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

    I hate to say it but you do see some awful gnashers in the UK. I have a few dentist friends in England and one of the reasons why you couldn’t buy teeth whiteners in the shops was so that the dentists could keep charging for it. Ironically it was the dentists and their wives who used to get me to send the over-the-counter whiteners to them for their personal use!

    • DNACowboy

      You’ve been able to buy teeth whitening in England for over 30 years not that you should use it as it tends to hide decay.

  • maggie

    I see plenty of American with bad teeth.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      The difference between bad teeth in the US and the UK is that usually, it’s poorer people in the US who have them. In the UK (although it’s getting better) bad teeth aren’t restricted to one social class. Witness the Queen Mother, who had one of the worst sets of teeth seen in recent centuries. They were teeny (ok, not her fault) and gray, with gaps between them. No excuse.

      • DNACowboy

        Wrong again, gaps between teeth is VERY healthy, lack of gaps allow bacteria to build up even with brushing and flossing.

  • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

    I disagree with the statement made at the beginning of the first paragraph. When most Americans speak about Brits they are more likely to say they love their accents or like their sense of humour before they say anything about bad teeth. Remember, many Americans have never met an Englishman in person so the only ones they are familiar with are the ones on telly or in film who usually have a decent grill.

  • Turtle

    I’m an American living in Britain, and it’s true. You lot have terrible teeth. Evidence:

    1. My husband had never heard of flossing before he spent time in the US, and when I told him we often had presentations in school about how to brush and floss properly, he said that is something he’d never heard of. (Maybe that’s changed in the 30 years since he left school.)

    2. I went to an NHS dentist, and he raved about how good my teeth were. I have never, ever, had an American dentist tell me that. Generally they admonish me to floss more.

    3. An NHS dentist will do a professional tooth cleaning in a fifteen minute appointment. A US dental hygienist will take forty five minutes to do a professional cleaning.
    4. I often see people (and not just the elderly) who are missing one or more teeth. In the US, only the poorest people would have a tooth removed without having a crown or bridge to replace them.

    There is simply a cultural difference. Healthy teeth are more important to Americans than they are to the British, and it shows when you smile.

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  • Alfirinriel

    I had 6 monthly regular check ups in England at various practices throughout my adult life, including a dental exam the week before I emigrated where I was told that I was fine, no problems. When I got to the US I had a new patient exam with my new dentist and he found 17 issues, including some cavities that were so big that he reckoned they were 3 to 5 years old. He showed me the x-rays because he was so worried that I’d think he was scamming me. Some of these problems had run on for so long, neither diagnosed nor treated in England, that I ended up having multiple root canals.

    Only NOW, 4 years later, have we finally reached the point where my teeth are stable.

    My hygiene technique was lacking, but nobody had ever tried to assess it or teach me. I hadn’t heard about floss before emigrating. My dentists were all clearly only interested in fixing problems that I was aware of. If it didn’t hurt, they didn’t care. I imagine the NHS funding process doesn’t help that, as it renders the dentists unenthusiastic about solving extra problems for not very much money.

    • DNACowboy

      Oh come on, everyone has heard of flossing in England and have practiced it daily for twenty years!

  • Olivia

    I honestly can’t pinpoint one specific origin. It’s a stereotype that has turned into common knowledge.

    I miss my big ole’ beaver teeth. Here is the US, my dentist said I had couple cavities on the back of my front teeth, he said it would be better in the long run to have crowns rather than fillings due to the placement. As he took my molds, he told me “they don’t make crooked crowns.”

    I must admit it’s much easier to take care of straighter teeth, but I miss the personality of my natural ones.

  • Kris Baughman

    It honestly shouldn’t matter. I am an american, though hardly proud of that fact, and my teeth are very very tiny. I’m rather self conscious about it actually. Really though who judges a person based on their teeth? A horse maybe, but not a person.

  • Mrs Baum

    Americans, you stick with your lovely white, straight teeth. I hate British teeth!

    I go to a private dentist rather than the NHS and am very happy with the treatment, but neither I or my son are eligible for NHS teeth straightening as our teeth are basically pretty good, just not perfect. If it was in the US we’d be getting them done as a matter of course, but here it would cost several thousand pounds each, and we just haven’t got the money. If we did, I’d be buying a new boiler for the house or getting a desperately-needed new bathroom fitted!

    I would like to have perfect teeth though…

  • Ken

    Well the U.S. has been putting Flouride into its drinking supply for decades with controversy. So of course our teeth would be different, its not just that we floss.

  • Letitia Landers-King

    My grandmother just turned 104 and still has almost all of her teeth. She grew up very poor in the rural South. One thing she’s always done is use a toothpick after every meal. She said as a child (the youngest of 12!) they didn’t often have regular toothbrushes, but that they would frequently use soft twigs cut from a sweet gum tree, the ends frayed to make a brush-like tool.

  • Irené Colthurst

    I wish I could link to the Quora post where someone explained this, but apparently American GIs’ standards in the forties were shaped by a tradition going back to at least the 18th century, when dentists were the more prevalent medical practitioners on the colonial frontier.

    Which is to say, no, “profit motive” is not the be-all, end-all explanation ;). Also, Smitten has it right: “bad teeth” is at least #4 or #5 on whatever the current “List of stereotypes Americans hold about British people” is.

  • Sevnofnyn

    I went to an old school NHS dentist when I was living in the UK. My British fiancée had had a filling that fell out, the guy yanked it instead of saving it, the day before our wedding. It smelled really bad with the blood. Ugh, he took a cursory glance at my teeth deciding I had several cavities. I am the American that had parents that spent a ton on straightening my teeth, taking me to the dentist twice a year, which I continued as an adult,I am a flosser, and I knew this guy was full of crap. So then he did some crazy whole head X-ray, not just bite wing, with no cover for my reproductive organs like they do here (real or perceived danger, I don’t know) and then said I didn’t have cavities, and then called a cleaning scraping my front 4 bottom teeth and charged me about 40 bucks, I would not have let him fill my teeth if I did have cavities. I did not trust him. 6 months later, I went to a modern clinic in a different city with young dentists, trained in modern practices and they were great and complimented me on my great teeth. It is strange to have a dentist and not hygienist clean my teeth though, I had that in Australia too, but it was also at a modern, holistic, clinic (they thought I was very keen that I got twice a year).

  • Anglo-Irish

    I have a theory that this stereotype started during the early stages of the British Empire. Simply because the rich Britons could import new and lovely things like tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate and sugary fruits, while also not knowing the adverse effect these had on their teeth (Among other things), plus no matter their nationality, people back then didnt really look after their teeth anyway, and finally dental care and understanding was nothing in comparison to today.
    This is a stereotype and obviously untrue, i hand on heart, do not know a single person with awful teeth. I dont consider big teeth as “Bad” teeth because its a thing they have from a very young age, its not like somebody not brushing their teeth and as a consequence their teeth are black. But if big teeth is deemed as “Bad” then i actually do know somebody with large/big teeth… but he isnt English, he is German but lives over here.

  • Abritishperson

    I don’t know what some british people are saying but I’ve heard of floss! AND I’m british? Who hasn’t heard of floss???

  • DNACowboy

    Factually incorrect article in every way, the latest OECD report on the world’s teeth found that the UK had the best teeth followed by Germany, in comparison America was way down the list due to the they hid bad teeth behind whitening products.
    The author of this article is slyly trying to re-enforce fake stereotypes rather than debunk them.
    Anecdotally, I spent 5 years working in the US and I found the same level of dental hygiene in both countries, there were people with good teeth and people with bad teeth. I imagine that’s the same everywhere.
    As for mexicans I believe they were taken in by bad American movies as prior to hollywood stereotyping they never referred to bad teeth as ‘British’.

  • DNACowboy