- Dental contouring involves removing small portions of the tooth enamel to improve your smile.
- The procedure is permanent and doesn’t usually require anesthesia or recovery time.
- Because tooth enamel is so thin, reshaping results in subtle changes – it can’t realign teeth.
- Tooth contouring may be used alongside other dental procedures to achieve the perfect smile.
Are your pearly whites uneven and chipped? If so, tooth contouring is one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve your smile’s appearance. Here we explore the pros and cons of this common dental procedure.
What is Tooth Contouring?
Tooth contouring goes by many names, including tooth reshaping and dental contouring. Whatever your cosmetic dentist calls it, the basic process is the same. He or she will remove small amounts of tooth enamel to change the shape, surface or length of a tooth. While this may not sound like much, these tiny changes can go a long way towards improving the look of your smile.
Tooth reshaping can help correct small imperfections, such as overlapping teeth, irregularly shaped teeth, chips in the enamel, rough edges, and pronounced pointy cuspids. For example, if you have one tooth that is slightly longer than the others, tooth contouring can shave off the extra length and bring it into line with the others.
Before a tooth reshaping procedure, your dentist might take an X-ray to ensure that your teeth are healthy and that your enamel is thick enough to withstand the procedure.
Tooth enamel is essentially a protective shell for your teeth that shields the sensitive nerves inside from sharp foods and extreme temperature changes, which can cause pain. Given that there are no nerve endings to register pain in the enamel itself, tooth reshaping usually doesn’t require anesthetic.
Once your dentist has determined that you’re a candidate for the procedure, he or she will use an instrument (i.e. a sanding disc, fine diamond bur or even a strip of sandpaper) to carefully remove the enamel. After your teeth have been sanded and shaped, they are polished and smoothed to finish off the procedure.
Pros and Cons of Tooth Contouring
Aside from the absence of any downtime, which is a huge plus for patients, results for this procedure can often be achieved in one appointment, making it a quick and affordable way to shape your smile. An appointment can take as little as half an hour.
In addition, enamel doesn’t grow back, so the change is permanent and you won’t need maintenance appointments to keep your newly improved smile looking good.
“The biggest pros of tooth contouring are that it’s minimally invasive – usually, you don’t even have to be numbed for it – and it’s still your own teeth when you’re done since you’re not adding a restoration,” notes Dr. Samantha B. Rawdin, DMD, a prosthodontist who specializes in repairing and replacing teeth.
Tooth contouring is a relatively inexpensive way to improve your smile if all you want is to get a few minor imperfections fixed. Depending on the extent of the work needed, it usually costs between $50 and $300 per tooth.
Because your enamel will be permanently thinner after the procedure, you’ll have to be extra vigilant with your dental care. If the enamel continues to wear thin, you may experience tooth sensitivity.
Simply follow the commonly recommended steps for good oral hygiene and you should be able to avoid this pitfall:
- Avoid excessive consumption of sugary foods and drinks
- Make sure your diet contains the recommended amounts of calcium
- Avoid brushing too hard or fast
- Use fluoride as advised by your dentist
- Seek medical advice if you grind your teeth
- See your dentist for regular checkups
Since tooth enamel is so thin – only about 2.5 millimeters – recontouring can only be performed to treat minor, surface-level imperfections. If you’re looking for more dramatic results, you’ll have to consider other cosmetic dentistry procedures. In fact, tooth reshaping can sometimes be used in conjunction with other procedures to achieve the desired effects.
Is Tooth Contouring for You?
To qualify as a good candidate for this procedure, your enamel must be healthy and thick enough so that your teeth won’t sustain permanent damage if a little bit of it gets shaved off.
If your enamel is too thin or the tooth interior (or pulp) is too close to the surface, you’ll have to consider other treatments. And if you have existing problems with teeth sensitivity, you should discuss this with your dentist beforehand to avoid stripping the protective coat that insulates your teeth.
“A good candidate for tooth contouring is a patient with minor chipping of the edges of teeth that can be smoothed out, or with very minor crowding or malposition of the teeth. Anything more than that will require additional procedures,” explains Dr. Rawdin.
Again, if you are looking to make drastic changes to your smile, tooth contouring simply won’t be able to accomplish this — it’s not a replacement for braces or other similar dental cosmetic procedures. However, tooth contouring may be used to provide the “finishing touch” after braces are removed. Patients should set reasonable expectations for small improvements – not a total transformation.
Dr. Paul Peterson, DDS, who has been practicing dentistry for almost two decades, identifies further criteria that might make someone a less than ideal candidate: “When the wear and tear on the teeth has progressed so far or the color properties of the teeth are so unattractive, smoothing or reshaping the edges won’t improve the appearance much,” he clarifies.
Combining Contouring with Other Cosmetic Procedures
Tooth contouring is often used alongside other cosmetic dental treatments. “Almost every patient I treat orthodontically gets some amount of contouring during treatment,” Dr. Peterson notes. In this section, we review the other options that may be used alongside tooth reshaping.
Dental bonding involves adding a tooth-colored resin material to an existing tooth to fill in gaps, chips, cavities and other imperfections in the enamel. In some ways, it is the opposite of tooth contouring as it adds material rather than takes it away.
As such, dental bonding may be used alongside teeth reshaping if, for instance, you wanted to shorten one tooth and fill in another. Usually, a tiny portion of the tooth enamel is removed to ready the tooth surface for bonding.
Since dental bonding isn’t manufactured in a lab (unlike veneers or crowns), the procedure has a relatively quick turnaround and can last for up to a decade before requiring touch ups.
A step up from bonding, veneers use the same basic principle (i.e. attaching shells made of tooth-colored porcelain or ceramic to the actual tooth) but on a larger scale. While bonding may only be applied to a single tooth or even just part of a tooth’s surface, porcelain veneers are often used to entirely cover the front of multiple teeth.
Like bonding, veneers last for years but they will need to be replaced eventually. Also, like bonding, a tiny bit of tooth enamel is removed to prepare the tooth for the procedure.
Since veneers are custom-made by a dental technician, they usually take longer to process than bonding. Ultimately, veneers don’t actually straighten the teeth. They can however be used to give the appearance of straighter teeth, which brings us to the next procedure.
Whether it’s the classic metal braces, lingual braces or invisible braces, there are many options out there for straightening your smile. As every middle-schooler knows, braces work to realign your teeth by applying continuous pressure over time, eventually moving the teeth in the desired direction.
While the other procedures listed so far can help achieve the appearance of straighter teeth, braces actually realign them. Teeth contouring may be used post-braces to touch up your pearly whites.
Some people look to tooth contouring to remove stains via abrasion, while others prefer bonding or veneers to cover up stains. There’s another option: teeth whitening.
This process entails using various bleaching agents directly on your enamel without having to remove or mask it. Bleaching can be achieved with a gel containing active ingredients, or through a light-activated whitening session at your dentist’s office.
Bleaching does not compromise the enamel, though same patients have found that whitening their teeth can make them more sensitive. It’s important to note that teeth whitening generally can’t address severe, persistent dark stains.
The Final Verdict
There are many options for improving your smile, and tooth contouring might be an excellent option in your quest for a beautiful smile. If you think you’re a good candidate for tooth reshaping, dental veneers or braces, a board-certified cosmetic dentist can help you make the choice that is best suited to your individual needs.