NEW YORK (AP) There are things people do in pursuit of beauty that Beverly Presley can't fathom doing herself. Tummy tucks and facelifts spring to mind, she says.
But Presley, a 56-year-old librarian in Worcester, Mass., and newly single again, acknowledges she's been thinking more about the way she looks and that led her to the dentist's chair.
In August, Presley spent 45 minutes and $895 to have her dentist whiten her teeth using a bleaching agent and the light of a laser. The results, she says, were worth it.
''People say to me, your face looks so much brighter,'' Presley said. ''I wouldn't go for the facelift or body sculpting sort of thing. But this is more, I would say, on par with having your hair colored.''
Presley's quest for more pearly whites speaks to the surging popularity of tooth whitening reflected in sales of over-the-counter products and in-office treatments by dentists and largely fed by demand from appearance-conscious baby boomers.
Sales of over-the-counter whiteners jumped 86 percent in the past year to $358.6 million, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago market research firm.
The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry found in a survey of its members that in-office tooth bleaching more than tripled between 1996 and 2000, and that it is the service most requested by patients. The trade group expects that an upcoming survey will show that growth has continued to spiral, noteworthy since such cosmetic treatments are not covered by insurance and consumers must pay for them out of their own pockets.
Whitening is gaining popularity across the age spectrum. The biggest-selling over-the-counter product, Crest Whitestrips, has done particularly well with younger consumers, according to a survey last year by market research firm Mintel International Group Ltd.
But consumers 40 and older are the most likely to have undergone treatment by a dentist, and to have used other over-the-counter products, according to Mintel.
''We have an aging baby boomer population that is now more than ever focused on looking better and this is a product that clearly falls within that trend,'' said John McIndoe, an Information Resources spokesman.
Baby boomers a demographic swath technically including all Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are reaching a point when signs of age are beginning to show in the mirror. But even more then preceding generations, many boomers appear intent on fighting back; they've already helped propelled the growth of products like hair replacement remedies and botox treatments for wrinkles.
Now, more boomers have begun trying whitening treatments to erase the marks left by years of gulping coffee, smoking cigarettes and sipping red wine, or just to improve the appearance of teeth they've always been less than satisfied with. The appeal, say some who have tried it, is a smile that helps in personal and business relationships, and builds confidence.
Take Joseph Horneman, who says personal presentation is key to his work. Horneman, who's 41, works in a New York Mercedes showroom, selling automobiles priced at $300,000 and up.
''I'm in a high-profile position and I need to have the best smile available,'' said Horneman, who tried an over-the-counter whitening product before turning to a dentist this past summer. The in-office treatment cost more than $500, but Horneman says erasing years of coffee stains was worth it.
''Before they were a little dull, stained, definitely in need of something,'' he said. ''I'm constantly looking for self-improvement and I don't go to extreme efforts, but this is something I thought was easily attainable.''
Attitudes like Horneman's point to a substantial change for many dental practices. As recently as a decade ago, most patients sought preventive care or came in out of necessity, for treatment of substantial problems, said Dr. Lawrence Addleson, a San Diego practitioner specializing in cosmetic dentistry.
Now, more people come in specifically to improve their appearance. Boomers account for most of the demand.
''They're trying to recapture something that they don't have a lot of control of,'' said Addleson, who estimates that boomers make up 70 percent of his whitening practice.
Consumers products companies and marketing-savvy dentists are working to tap the demand.
Procter & Gamble, which owns the Crest brand, and competitor Colgate-Palmolive Co. each recently introduced nighttime versions of their whitening products. Some dentists have also begun formulating their own products, for sale not just through their offices, but in department stores and pharmacy chains.
''It's totally accepted, just like if you're going to put on lip liner, you're going to whiten your teeth,'' said Dr. Jonathan Levine, a New York dentist who markets GoSmile, a $75 whitener sold over cosmetics counters in stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.
But many boomer consumers say they see whitening treatment not so much through the prism of marketing, but as a personal choice.
''It makes you want to smile and you know what? People want to be greeted with a smile. They're more receptive to a smile,'' said Horneman, the luxury auto salesman. ''For me, it was a well worthwhile investment.''
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