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S.C. legislator seeks to regulate tooth whitening

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COLOMBIA – If you want to get your teeth whitened in South Carolina, a state legislator wants to make you have it done by a licensed dental hygienist.

Rep. Raye Felder, R-York, wants to put out of business those who perform teeth whitening without a license, such as at mall kiosks. Under her bill, H 3949, people could still buy over-the-counter teeth-whitening products.

“We need to take this seriously,” Felder said. “We need to protect young people from getting their teeth whitened too often and damaging their porcelain.”

At least 14 states have similar regulations, according to the Institute for Justice, which has sued Alabama on behalf of a woman who was told to stop selling her teeth-whitening system there.

Felder’s bill is part of a “nationwide trend of dentists trying to use occupational licensing laws to restrict honest competition,” said Paul Sherman, senior attorney for the group, which opposes what it sees as anti-competitive regulations.

Felder, an insurance agent first elected to the House in 2012, received a $350 campaign contribution from the state dental association political action committee two months before she introduced the bill in April 2013, according to State Ethics Commission records. She has since received another $350 for her re-election campaign.

She did not receive any dental PAC support in her 2012 campaign, according to her finance reports.

Felder doesn’t expect her bill to pass this year but would introduce it again next year if she is re-elected to the House. “There are dangers in abusing tooth-whitening chemicals when it’s done too often or not done correctly.”

She said she remembered being at a flea market in Myrtle Beach and seeing a kiosk where people without dental licenses were whitening teeth.

“There was no running water,” she said. “Out of curiosity, I asked, ‘Is there a health questionnaire I need to fill out?’ And no, there was nothing. For $29.99, you could get your teeth whitened.”

But Sherman of the Institute of Justice said that there have been no reported cases of permanent damage from tooth whitening and that orange juice is more damaging to teeth than tooth-whitening products.

“This law has nothing to do with public safety and has everything to do with protecting dentists from competition,” he said. “If this law passes, it is going to put entrepreneurs in South Carolina out of business.”

Teeth whitening, if a patient’s teeth or gums are damaged, can cause further damage, and it’s a good precaution to check for cavities or periodontal disease before whitening, said Matthew Messina, a teeth-whitening spokesman for the American Dental Association as well as a dentist in Fairview Park, Ohio.

Unlicensed tooth whiteners can’t do such diagnoses and are unable to take the basic precautions, Messina said. Tooth-whitening kiosks also are not subject to the same health inspections as dental offices, and there is no way for the average person to tell if the equipment used is safe, he said.

Irmo dentist Greg Wych said that if tooth whitening is done without a dentist’s supervision, “that kind of stuff is really rolling the dice.”

“If the bleaching gel gets on the gums, they are going to have problems. It could burn their mouths,” Wych said. “So I like that they’re trying to regulate it in that sense.”

But he’s concerned that only dentists or hygienists could do whitening.

“I can guarantee you that in every dental office in South Carolina, if somebody is dispensing or utilizing whitening products, it’s not the hygienist or the dentist who’s doing it,” Wych said. “It’s all mediated by the assistant.”

If a licensed hygienist has to do the whitening instead of a dental assistant, he said, “the economics just don’t work out.”

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