NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Tooth whitening is the fastest, cheapest and most convenient way to a brighter smile, but is it safe?
NewsChannel 5 Investigates went undercover to find out, and what it found won't make anyone smile - dental work without a dentist.
"What she's going to feel during the process is a whole lot of tingling," said technician working at a mall kiosk told our undercover operative. "That's basically from the bubbles working.
But a real dentist said that's not supposed to happen.
"That's called the gums burning," said Dr. Ellen Shemancik.
While there are whitening toothpastes, some people are opting to get their teeth whitened while they shop.
"We use two gel strips. We do one on the top, one on the bottom," said an employee at a mall kiosk.
"What we do is put this in your mouth and then we put the gel in the tray and we set you under the light for 12 minutes," she said. "All it does is just take the stains right off."
But the employees are not dentists.
"What we can do is get these teeth a little whiter," said another technician.
Yet NewsChannel 5's undercover investigation found employees at two different locations doing things only dentists are supposed to be doing.
"I would think twice about having it done in the middle of a mall," Shemancik said.
Shemancik and others with the Tennessee Dental Association are concerned that customers are being misled, even possibly harmed by these shopping mall operations.
"When you have a person standing in a white lab coat, they immediately think it's a health care professional," she said. "These are non-health-related individuals usually that have no dental background."
When someone spoke to the mall employees and asked if they were a dentist or a hygienist, the employee said they weren't.
In fact, she told NewsChannel 5's undercover crew she didn't have any dental training. But she assured them she knew how to whiten teeth.
"It's not really hard to learn. It's pretty easy," one employee said.
Because the employees are not dentists, they're not supposed to do anything more than just fill the mouth tray. Customers are supposed to do the rest. Yet, they are seen in undercover video repeatedly adjusting the lamp and touching the customer's mouth trying to get the tray in, sometimes without wearing gloves.
"The gel is professional-grade peroxide," said one employee.
State rules said the whitening gel they use is not supposed to be any stronger than what consumers can buy over the counter. Yet, based on what they said, the mall workers seem to be ignoring that rule.
"It's a carbamide peroxide and it's professional grade. You can't get it over the counter. It's what dentists use," said one employee.
"If the solution is not placed properly in the trays that these people are using, you can have severe burning on the gums. You can also have tooth sensitivity," Shemancik said.
"What she's going to feel during the process is a whole lot of tingling," said one employee about the process.
"That's not normal. That's not supposed to be happening," Shemancik said.
"That's basically from the bubbles working," said a mall employee.
"That's called burning the gums," Shemancik said.
Shemancik in a dentist's office, the dentist would check the patient's teeth to make sure their mouth is healthy enough for the procedure. The dentist would also carefully monitor the patient throughout the whitening process. The procedure would cost on average several hundred dollars.
"We do it for a fraction of the cost. We do it for $129," a mall employee told the undercover crew.
"So what's the main difference between doing this here versus doing it in a dentist's office? Money," said another employee.
Employees at both kiosks NewsChannel 5 visited said dentists don't like the competition.
"They're trying to make it illegal to do this because of the fact that we take all of their patients from them," said one employee.
But dentists said they're trying to stop people who are not dentists from acting like they are.
"The state needs to be investigating and doing what you're doing, sending people in undercover and see what they're doing and either fining or shutting down these people," Shemancik said.
"We put this impression in your mouth," said another mall employee.
"It can be a danger to the customers," Shemancik said.
The Tennessee Health Department didn't say whether they've receive any complaints. But, in other states, customers have complained about getting severe burns in their mouth.
However, one of the teeth whitening manufacturers sent NewsChannel 5 a statement Thursday afternoon that reads in part, "We do not have a single situation where we have caused permanent damage. The overwhelming majority of customers experience anywhere from zero to tolerable sensitivity." The full statement is on our website.
Mall kiosks are legal in Tennessee. The state doesn't have very specific rules when it comes to teeth whitening at malls right now.
But, the head of the state dental board said Thursday they now plan to take a look at the issue at their next meeting in January.
Several other states have already shut down mall kiosks for doing essentially what was revealed in the story for practicing, as they put it, dentistry without a license.