Celebrity teeth look the same thanks to veneers, and TikTok has thoughts – The Washington Post

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.
Have you ever looked at Selena Gomez’s teeth? Like, really looked at them? Have you studied the undulating Pepto-pink curvature of her gums? Have you clocked the angle at which her two front teeth rest on her fricative line — the wet-dry equator of the lower lip, where the oral mucosa transitions to the vermilion — when she smiles? Did you notice, approximately four years ago, that Gomez’s teeth appeared to change shape, color and position — that they were suddenly whiter than ever, aligned in a ramrod-straight row at the front of her face?
This up-close-and-too-personal examination of a famous person’s mouth sounds like the stuff of stalkers and serial killers. But you can score a tour like this of many a celebrity’s maw on @veneercheck, the TikTok account of Sara Hahn, a Harvard-trained doctor specializing in cosmetic dentistry. Over photos of A-listers, in a cadence and tone somewhere between professor and influencer, Hahn offers her analysis of and speculation on the dental work of celebrities.
The Gomez video starts with a red-carpet photo some 15 years ago of the actress circa “Wizards of Waverly Place,” over which Hahn begins her inspection. “Her central incisors, number eight and number nine, have a little rotation — like this.” Hahn demonstrates, holding up her hands with her pinkies touching, tilting them so their backs turn slightly toward one another. In the background, a more recent photo of Gomez pops up. “In 2019, it looks like she got veneers,” says Hahn.
An image from a magazine shows a beaming, open-mouthed Gomez. “In this photo, [her teeth] look fine,” says Hahn. “But in a lot of photos” — here, a paparazzi shot replaces the glossy advertisement — “they look too labially inclined, sticking out like this.” Hahn models again with her hand: she points her fingers at her mouth, bending her wrist at a 45-degree angle from her face. This, Hahn surmises, is probably because Gomez didn’t rotate her natural teeth flat through orthodontics before getting veneers. “That veneer is probably really thick, facially.”
As the video nears its conclusion, Hahn adds, in a conspiratorial tone, that there’s “one other thing that’s a little bit off about these veneers”: They’re all exactly the same length. “Your two front teeth are usually a millimeter longer than your lateral incisors.” Tween Selena smiles at us again, and Hahn points to the adolescent’s mouth to show that Gomez’s teeth “naturally” had the correct proportions. If Gomez had been her patient, Hahn “probably would have recommended Invisalign or braces,” rather than, or at least before, veneers.
While some commenters take issue with how invasive Hahn’s videos feel (a not-uncommon reply, under Hahn’s analysis of Anya Taylor-Joy’s smile: “I would die [if] someone did this to me”) and others lash out at Hahn for suggesting their beloved icons have had work done (Hahn is stunned by “the sheer amount of denial” of the Swifties), many of Hahn’s followers — she has more than 140,000 — say they’re grateful to her for lifting the veil.
“I think the most common comment I’ve had is that I’ve helped people realize that their smiles are beautiful,” Hahn told me. “And I think when you’re constantly bombarded with ‘perfect’ smiles, you cannot feel confident in your smile.”
Hahn launched her TikTok in March 2022 as a response to what she saw as an unsettling trend among celebrity smiles: Everybody had the exact same teeth. Unnaturally perfect. Technically beautiful. Very uncanny valley. Hahn believes veneers are “amoral,” but the artificial dazzle of these smiles made something inside her recoil. “There’s no variation of color,” she said. “There’s no variation of translucency. There’s no surface texture. It’s just stamps.”
At the same time, a wave of patients were coming through Hahn’s office needing work on the veneers they already had done. “I was seeing so many people getting, in my opinion, unnecessary dental work or dental work that was damaging their own teeth,” she said. “There was this idealization of veneers, or this perfect Hollywood smile.” Many of her patients, she said, are redos: “Young females in their 20s just absolutely regretting ever going to the dentist and pursuing veneers to begin with.”
She worried about the irreparable harm aesthetic dentistry can do to “perfectly good teeth. … As a dentist, you know that having all the money in the world can’t reproduce your good, natural, healthy tooth structure.” Everybody knows magazine images are digitally altered and Instagram pictures are filtered, but did anyone realize how few celebrities still had their natural teeth? And if so, did they understand the toll cosmetic dentistry takes on the body? “I wanted to share that it came with a cost.”
Think of your tooth as an egg. Its smallest, innermost chamber — the yolk — is the pulp, made up of cells and blood vessels and a nerve through which the tooth is nourished. Surrounding the pulp, like the white of the egg, is the dentin. The dentin is laced with microscopic tubules: tiny openings that you can’t feel, unless the outermost layer of your tooth, the enamel — the shell — is compromised.
Enamel is the hardest tissue in the human body. It contains no living cells, so — like your hair and unlike your skin — once damaged, it cannot repair itself. Enamel is the shield between acidic food or very hot or cold liquids in your mouth and the nerve at the center of your tooth. Without the protection enamel provides, those intense sensations would be transmitted through the dentin’s little tubes right to your nerve.
A person with especially small teeth and unusually large gaps between their teeth would be a candidate for what is called a “no-prep veneer.” But most people’s teeth are not so naturally accommodating, and the lion’s share of patients will need their teeth “prepped.” A dentist will shave 0.5 to 1 millimeter off the tooth to create space for the veneer. Veneers last about 15 years, after which they need to be replaced. Once a tooth is shaved down, it needs to be covered by a veneer (which is placed over the front of the tooth) or crown (which goes all the way around the tooth, like a thimble) forever.
The most aggressive approach, colloquially referred to as “Turkey teeth” due to how many patients travel to Turkey for the procedure, are cases “where the tooth is shaved down to a little nub,” said Hahn. “This is the most damaging: You have removed all of the enamel. You’re close to the inside of the tooth, the dentin, which means you’re very close to the nerve.”
“If that nerve gets damaged or bacteria gets introduced to it, it’s going to die and cause an infection, and that must be removed, so a root canal is done,” said Hahn. “Root-canal treated teeth don’t last as long as healthy teeth. The more times you touch a tooth with a drill, the higher the chances that that nerve on the inside is going to be damaged.” Each time a dentist redoes a veneer, “you have to refine what’s underneath, so you’re taking away a little more tooth each time. We’re talking about a finite quantity of material. At some point, the tooth is just not going to be strong enough to hold whatever you want to put on top of it. It will snap.”
The potential for such body horror has not dissuaded the stars, who all seem to have attended some private summit at which they agreed this was a cosmetic enhancement required for an on-camera career. The smile upgrade became a routine stop on the fame-seeking assembly line: Get new hair (color, cut, extensions). Get a new body (diet, exercise, Ozempic). Get a newish face (Botox, filler, rhinoplasty). And, at some point along the way, get new teeth. The film actor, the pop star, the Bachelorette, the influencer — their smiles are all the same, their smiles are impeccable, their smiles are an advertisement for smiling itself. “It’s not even trying to mimic nature,” said Hahn. “It’s just trying to look like, ‘I have big, white, perfect, straight teeth.’”
You’ll know the smile when you see it, and you’ve probably seen it everywhere. Teeth as white and even as a row of dominoes, devoid of any meaningful identifying features. The smile is indiscriminately scattered among every person in the movie or show you’re watching, regardless of the character’s socioeconomic status or the historical period in which they reside or how many cigarettes they smoke.
Once the exclusive purview of the rich and famous, cosmetic dentistry is more accessible than ever. Social media influencers have made the masses aware of what was formerly intel for insiders only; simply being on social media — or FaceTime, or the corner of the Zoom screen — has turned the camera on the viewer, shifting civilian norms toward the celebrity standard.
After cosmetic dentist Sam Saleh treated several cast members in “The Real Housewives” extended universe (Nene Leakes in Atlanta, Dorit Kemsley in Beverly Hills), he said at his office on Rodeo Drive, “we just got massively inundated with all of [Kemsley’s] followers and fans [who said]: ‘I want her teeth.’”
The proliferation of Instagram filters, Saleh said, has also given would-be patients a vision for how their smiles could change. “It’s like they’re getting a sense of what they could look like. And then they take this to the doctor’s office and they’re like, ‘Make me look like this.’”
He has had to turn away teenagers seeking veneers when he thinks they would be better served by braces and patience. “It’s a touchy place for these younger girls. Because now you have a generation where they sometimes are so used to seeing a filtered picture that the reality is now no longer good enough, even if the reality is great, because they’re constantly seeing the photo that’s being filtered.”
There’s a brilliant blue sky over Beverly Hills on the day I visit the office of Kevin Sands, who advertises himself as “the Rolls-Royce of cosmetic dentistry.” He has more than 750,000 followers on Instagram. One of the several URLs that brings you to his website is 90210dentist.net, where a homepage full of photos show him grinning alongside celebrity clients: Emma Stone, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Drake. The brightest star in his extended universe, currently, is Kim Kardashian. He was featured on an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” in 2016 (Khloe came in for a cleaning); Kim’s framed Vogue cover (from 2014, with Kanye West) graces the waiting-room wall.
Sands has an endearing and frenetic energy. He was immediately, comically familiar with me, a total stranger interviewing him for this story (“Nice to meet you, sweetheart”). He had a full schedule and was already running an hour behind when he sat down for our conversation.
“I’m working on this feature about teeth,” I began. “And specifically the state of the celebrity smile. And …”
He cut in: “Everybody wants to look like Kim.”
Though Sands was successful when the Kardashians came calling, the ambient glow cast by the spotlight on Kim and her family has been very good to him. “It’s changed my whole career.”
Born and raised in Beverly Hills, Sands “always just loved pretty things. And I always had an eye for it.” When he went into practice in 1999, he said, cosmetic dentistry wasn’t all that popular — it’s still not recognized as a specialty by the American Dental Association — and his “smile makeovers,” as he still bills the service, were a tough sell. Skittish patients feared their teeth would look fake. But Sands was committed, drawn to the immediacy of cosmetic dentistry. “You made people look good instantly. You get instant results, that instant gratification. You change people’s lives. I mean, you give people confidence, people get better jobs, better dates, better husbands, better wives — better everything.”
By the early 2000s, Sands was a boldface name, known for treating Britney Spears. But the 2010 launch of Instagram was an accelerant. “I was very famous before,” he said. “And now it’s just next level. … I look at TMZ every day and 50 percent of those people are my clients.”
His patients’ veneers are custom-made in Sands’ in-house dental lab. Though everyone tends to want the whitest shade they can get away with, Sands’s team will “layer in different colors … and add translucencies” to make the teeth look more real. Each tooth costs between $3,000 and $5,000. Rates for gum contouring (cutting away part of the gum to create an even line or make a smile less “gummy”) are about the same price per spot. A person getting their full smile done — say, everything but the molars — is looking at a bill in the ballpark of $100,000.
To give me a clearer sense of his work, Sands pulled out a binder of before and after photos. Most of the pictures were of young women. About 70 percent of his clientele is female, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40. “But I have a lot of older women in their upper 40s and 50s,” he said. “And I make them look like they’re 30.”
We paged through the binder together. Some patients arrived in Sands’s office in rough shape — not a surprise, really, given the state of dental care in the United States. By the Health Resources and Services Administration’s count, 70 million Americans live in areas with dentist shortages. Only half of American adults with private health insurance also have dental insurance; according to a 2020 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter of adults with dental coverage still didn’t see a dentist in 2019. Dental care isn’t covered by Medicare. Orthodontia, a rite-of-passage for upper-middle class American adolescents (or those whose parents hope their children will ascend to that station), costs several thousand dollars. And even if your parents can afford braces, unless you wear your retainers literally every day until you die — quite the commitment for a 14-year-old to keep — all that expense can be for naught, the work undone.
Given that, I was struck by how many of Sands’s “before” pictures were already apparently healthy and beautiful, as far as I could tell. “Is the average person walking in, coming to you, with a baseline better smile to begin with, that they still want to improve?” I asked.
He said yes. “I have people that have really good teeth, like an A … [and they] want an A-plus.”
He paused above an image. “Look at this gorgeous model. She has gorgeous teeth.” Anyway, that’s the before picture. He showed me the after. “Is that spectacular? … It’s better than her perfect teeth. It went from A-plus to A-plus-plus-plus-plus.” He turned to another page and gestured at the even teeth of the after photo. “I mean, who would not want this?”
The A-pluses — the afters — are both better and worse, somehow, than the befores. They are technically improved but emotionally charmless, impossible to tell apart from the others on the page. “Do you ever feel like you end up making a lot of your patients look like each other?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Everybody’s unique. I’ve never done a smile twice.”
As our conversation wound down, Sands reflected on his life outside of this office. He’s a father to three sons. “The pressure put on females, it’s pretty tough,” he said. “I always wanted a daughter, and it didn’t work out that way. But now I’m thinking, just seeing this Instagram and the editing, I’m kind of happy I don’t because I just feel bad. … It’s really sad. The insecurity levels and what people think is pretty and not pretty … it’s just crazy. But I think people are beautiful just the way they are.”
I asked how he reconciles those feelings with his work of turning As into A-pluses. “I just think that a lot more people going to college need to be therapists, because I think the world needs it,” he replied. “But I feel really good about what I do.”
He’s a happy customer, too. Sands got veneers 15 years ago. “I had a great smile,” he said, marred only by a “tiny gap” between his two front teeth because — you guessed it — he didn’t wear his retainers. He’s thrilled with the small fix, which boosted his confidence but is all but imperceptible to the outside observer. “My mother wouldn’t even know,” he said.
“Listen,” he added. “I’m a perfect patient for this stuff and I love cosmetics. … I go for the Botox. I’ve had a hair transplant. I’ve had a chin implant. A nose job. I love it. Well, if you could look better, why not?”
When I got home from Los Angeles, I realized that the conversation I’d had with Sands over his before-and-after binder reminded me of an episode of “The Twilight Zone”: “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.”
The episode originally aired in 1964. Rod Serling tells us that we’re in the year 2000. “Imagine a time in the future when science has the means of giving everyone the face and body he dreams of.” In this world, everyone chooses a new face and body as soon as they turn 19 — a youthful, lithe, conventionally attractive figure, in which they will remain until death. It’s called “picking a pattern.” There are a limited number of patterns from which to choose; most of the adults are played by the same actors, and the only way to tell them apart is to read the names stitched on their clothes.
As Marilyn’s 19th birthday approaches, she expresses reservations about the transformation. “You’ll be beautiful,” her mother assures her. “The transformation is the most marvelous thing that could happen to a person.” Her doctor insists the transformation is necessary and for her own good. Asks our narrator: “Given the chance, what young girls wouldn’t happily exchange a plain face for a lovely one?”
But Marilyn insists she doesn’t want it. In a panic, she confides in her mother: “They don’t care whether you’re beautiful or not. They just want everyone to be the same!” She reveals to her best friend, Val, that her father didn’t die in a mysterious work accident but actually killed himself after his transformation, “Because when they took away his identity he had no reason to go on living.” Though all the post-transformation people who meet her tell her she is ugly, Marilyn pushes back: “Not to people who love me.” It dawns on Marilyn that the physical transformation is also, functionally, a lobotomy, rendering its recipients incurious and compliant. In the end, she is imprisoned at the hospital and forced to undergo the transformation. She emerges as Number 8, the same body as Val.
The episode is based on “The Beautiful People,” a 1952 short story by Charles Beaumont. In Beaumont’s tale, among the many improvements people can expect from the transformation is “white, white teeth, even, sparkling.”
All of these altered smiles — the afters in Sands’s binder, the carousels of crowns on Hahn’s TikTok — seen one after the other after the other, start to take on a vaguely ominous bent. These perfect, inhuman teeth embody a phenomenon that I am calling “hotness creep.”
Hotness here is emphatically not about beauty — which is rooted in nature and often results from an unexpectedly pleasing assembly of imperfections — and it’s not about being sexy: messy, raw and alive. Hotness, by this definition, cannot be achieved through regular means, e.g. a combination of genetic luck, fitness and nutrition; hotness here must be bought and rigorously maintained through laborious, expensive and possibly dangerous upkeep.
Hotness creep is about that algorithmic tug toward sameness. Hotness creep is aggressively bland. Hotness creep is to actual beauty what ChatGPT is to literature. Hotness creep is a body whose every facet has been “optimized” through a cosmetic, capitalist intervention, which is why its most high-profile practitioners look less like people than android-esque approximations of people, as if they are wearing a filter full-time. Hotness creep is why everybody traded in their natural bone structure for “Instagram face.” Hotness creep is a face that doubles as a proof of purchase. Hotness creep is why so many nepo babies look like yassified versions of their parents. It’s appealing the same way a McMansion is appealing — a house that does not look “good” but does look expensive and, crucially, like every other McMansion.
“The beauty ideal [is] becoming increasingly inhuman,” said Jessica DeFino, beauty industry reporter and author of the newsletter the Unpublishable. “The standard that’s being reflected is not a marker of human health or even human possibility. It’s very marked by machinery and technological intervention … [and] visual signals that someone has attained a certain level of wealth and power.”
Hotness creep is part of a broader movement toward homogeneity not just in our faces and bodies but in our surroundings. Walk through any newer development and you’ll find every building looks the same — from its blocky, interchangeable exteriors to the flat, blank interiors that serve as the backdrop for most influencer content. In addition to looking identical, many of these places are forgettable: Generic, gray-beige buildings that feel like placeholders for the real buildings that will never arrive. Even the ostensibly quirky “shoppy shops” look like all the other shoppy shops.
Every place looks like every other place and every face looks like every other face. It’s all a part of this great flattening, a sanding off of every edge, an apparent communal concession to our mostly screen-centered lives.
Participation in these norms sends a message, DeFino went on, about a person’s readiness to submit to the status quo: “So much of beauty is adopting these signifiers that say, one, where you fall, and two, that you know the rules and you’re willing to abide by them. It does signal some sort of compliance, some safety in the social system. You’re not trying to disrupt anything here. You’re playing by the rules.”
Not too long ago, Hahn went on her @veneercheek account and posted a video about the 1999 teen classic “10 Things I Hate About You.” When I called her for the second time, after spending months reporting on and staring at the “perfect” smile that modern media consumers cannot escape, I reminisced with her about the movie and its incredible cast. Heath Ledger was the ultimate heartthrob; Larisa Oleynik the gorgeous girl whose backlit entrance made the world around her seem like it was moving in slow motion. Its stars represented that era’s physical ideals. And all of them, by 2023 standards, had lousy teeth.
In her TikTok, Hahn gushes over the asymmetries in the “10 Things” stars’ mouths: “the more facial canine number six” in Julia Stiles, the “irregularities” in Oleynik’s smile, the “pretty pronounced central incisors” on Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Even Ledger has canines “a shade darker” than his two front teeth. Hahn sighs with delight and relief as she cycles through the images. “It just makes me so happy to see natural teeth.”
“I think my joy in that video is, it was refreshing that we weren’t constantly striving for ‘perfection’ and you could be a celebrity and have slight ‘imperfections’ — and we were all okay as a society seeing that!” Hahn said. “Nobody was criticizing that.” And we aren’t exactly talking about some ancient cinematic artifact. “It wasn’t that long ago!”
Veneers are to teeth what suntans are to the skin and dye is to the hair: They are evidence that damage has been done to the body, but are frequently perceived as a sign of health, wealth and status. (Hotness creep is every White celebrity showing up at the Oscars with a spray tan.) Though of course teeth that are yellow can betray a lack of care — stains, poor hygiene, etc. — not even a paragon of health, particularly as they age, will naturally have teeth the color of cocaine. “People are jeopardizing the health of their teeth for the sake of pursuing this aesthetic,” Hahn said.
It’s an aesthetic Hahn doesn’t expect will last. “I think these ‘perfect’ teeth are like eyebrows were in the 2000s: skinny was in, so everybody overplucked. Or like silicone breast implants: People were getting them left and right and now they’re getting them removed. I think in 15, 20 years, people’s veneers are going to be falling out. Their gums will be receding. They’ll be like: I’ve got to pay for this for the rest of my life. I’ll need root canals and full crowns. … I do think veneers are a fad. These white, Lego teeth are a fad. … It’s not going to age well.”
For now, though, that future can feel very far away. “Now, the only type of teeth you see are ‘perfect’ smiles,” she said. “Anybody with any variation in their natural teeth changes it.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated in a caption that Brooke Dusek’s teeth were veneers. They are her natural teeth. The article has been updated.

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