The Conservatives have demanded a clampdown on ‘cosmetic cowboys’ who carry out potentially harmful tooth-whitening procedures in the high street.
Mike Penning, the Tory spokesman on dentistry, accused the government of shying away from action necessary to stop unqualified, ‘rogue beauticians’ from using chemicals to for bleaching.
Mr Penning, who has already called for new legislation to regulate high street Botox operations, said such a law could be extended to cover ‘highly dangerous’ whitening procedures. Such procedures, increasingly carried out by unqualified therapists who charge significantly less than professional dentists, have in some cases been blamed for permanently damaging patients’ teeth.
In February, Dentistry.co.uk reported on the case of a 23-year-old woman who was forced to see a dentist for restoration work after she paid £200 to have her teeth treated with chlorine dioxide, an industrial bleaching agent, and two days later found they were browner than before.
The law states that it is a criminal offence for anyone other than a registered dentist or dental care professional to practise dentistry. Both the Department of Health and the General Dental Council (GDC) say this includes tooth whitening.
A DoH spokeswoman said: ‘Anyone who applies a tooth whitening product to another person is undertaking the practice of dentistry. Under the Dentists Act 1984, only dentists and in any certain circumstances, dental care professionals like dental hygienists can undertake the practice of dentistry. Beauticians and hairdressers who apply the products are breaking the law and are regularly prosecuted through actions initiated by trading standards officers.’
The GDC, which regulates the profession, agreed that unqualified high-street beauticians who carried out tooth-whitening procedures were breaking the law. It said the Council investigated reports of such practices and took ‘appropriate action’ when required, up to and including legal action.
In October 2006 the GDC successfully prosecuted an individual, who was not GDC-registered, for the illegal practice of dentistry for carrying out a tooth-whitening procedure. A GDC spokeswoman said: ‘We are committed to protecting the public by prosecuting people who are not registered with the GDC and who perform – or provide clinical advice about – tooth whitening because we believe this is illegal practice.’
But Mr Penning said such prosecutions, for a practice that was so widespread, were few and far between. Although it was ‘technically’ illegal, in practice the law was ‘not being enforced’.
He told Dentistry he had passed a high street beauty salon in Essex a few weeks ago openly offering tooth-whitening procedures for £150. He claimed that in some instances unqualified providers who were forced to halt their illegal procedures started up again soon after the authorities moved on.
He said: ‘It’s the government’s job to enforce that and take action against cosmetic cowboys. If there is legislation it’s not working and not providing the protection people need.’
Mr Penning said a new law should be introduced to make it easier to enforce professional standards on a range of cosmetic procedures, including the injection of Botox as well as tooth whitening. The law would explicitly ‘ban tooth lightening with peroxide outright – unless done by a fully qualified dentist’. He added: ‘I will be pushing the government to find out why they are not willing to legislate to protect the public.’
In September, consumer group ‘Which?’ said it had discovered beauty salons allowing unqualified staff to carry out tooth-whitening treatments that could inflict permanent damage.
It said that while most treatments used hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, both proven to bleach teeth, others offered a chlorine dioxide treatment, a bleaching agent which could wreck tooth enamel.
Other clinics were using hydrogen peroxide in strengths from 0.6% to 10%, above the legal limit of 0.1%, it claimed. The GDC said it had launched investigations into several of the clinics.
By Andy Tate, parliamentary correspondent