It's almost a running joke that the British have bad teeth. It was referenced repeatedly in the popular 'Austin Powers' movie with Mike Myers, in which the comic actor wears an oversized, yellowed set of teeth in order to underline how British he is. In 'The Simpsons,' when a dentist wants to scare Ralph Wiggum, they show him the 'Big Book of British Smiles' as an incentive to look after his dental hygiene. It's all very funny, and everyone laughs.
Because it’s been represented on screen so often, everyone lazily believes the stereotype. The British have poor dental hygiene. British teeth are yellow. British teeth are uneven and misshapen. As with most stereotypes, though, there’s a jarring problem. There’s simply no basis for it in reality. The idea that the British have bad teeth is a complete myth.
Nobody seems to know how and when the stories started, or how they came to be perpetuated to such an extent. 'Austin Powers' certainly didn't help. The movie became such a huge deal that it crossed over into popular culture. People who haven't even seen the film have heard of it or interacted with spin-off goods like the official mobile slots game based on the film (although when it comes to teeth, perhaps people think the British are more fond of another mobile slots game by the name of 'Crazy Dentist'). The British don't gamble with their teeth in the same way that people playing mobile slots games on website like Amigo Slots, though. In fact, they're just as conscious of looking after themselves as the Americans are.
Before the next American thinking about making a joke about British teeth does so ('Family Guy,' we're looking at you. You have form for this!), we have an interesting statistic for them to reflect on first. The cold, hard truth is that, on average, the condition of British teeth is no worse than the condition of American teeth. In some areas, the standard of British teeth is actually a lot better - and that might be down to the way that healthcare works in the UK.
The article we just linked to makes reference to a detailed study that was carried out on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and charted differences in the quality of people’s dental health based on location, income, and economic background. Every single statistic pointed to a greater variance in the standard of people’s dental maintenance in the United States than there is in the United Kingdom. In short, people who live in poor areas, or are on low incomes, are more likely to have bad teeth in the USA than they are in the UK.
A little knowledge of the availability of dental care in both countries can easily explain this. In the United States, access to dental care is largely reliant on having dental insurance. If you don't have dental insurance, you'll struggle to get in front of a dentist. That means if something starts to go wrong with your teeth, it will continue to go wrong until you can afford to do something about it. By that point, it may already be too late.
That doesn’t happen in the United Kingdom, because the United Kingdom has the National Health Service. The NHS guarantees free-at-the-point of use dental treatment to everybody who needs it if they’re unable to pay for it themselves. Even for those who can afford to pay for it, the cost of dental treatment is heavily subsidized. Nobody gets turned away, and so everyone can have dental health issues corrected.
It's possible that the mislabeling of British teeth dates back to the time when American sailors used to refer to British sailors as 'limeys,' due to their habit of eating limes to stave off the threat of scurvy. The high acidity of limes isn't great for teeth, and standards of dental care on a ship in the middle of the ocean - especially a century ago - weren't great. By the time a British sailor returned home, his teeth could be well on their way of rotting out of his head completely. American soldiers, who had more creative ways of avoiding scurvy, noted and commented on this trend.
While that’s a likely origin for the myth, it’s a horribly outdated one. It’s been a very long time since British sailors had to rely on limes to keep them healthy. It’s also over half a century since the British introduced the National Health Service, and started opening up quality dental care to the whole population. To put it another way, it’s just like any other old, lazy stereotype - it’s out of date, and nobody’s bothered to update their points of reference on it.
Health care provisions aside, there's also an argument to be made that improvements in the general state of British teeth can at least partially be put down to vanity. People simply notice other people's teeth more than they used to, and we live in the age of teeth whitening. High-profile British celebrities such as Simon Cowell, David Beckham, and Adele have all notably had procedures done to give themselves perfect white sets of teeth (which are sometimes referred to in the British press as 'American teeth' - making this a self-perpetuated stereotype). Big-name celebrities are influential. When they elect to have a procedure done, they inspire thousands of people to follow in their footsteps. As such procedures become cheaper and more available, more people are electing to have them done.
Will this information put an end to the tired old jokes? Probably not - our voice isn't loud enough, and it's very rare that people allow the truth to get in the way of a good story anyway! If you're one of our British readers, though, take this information in and remember it. The next time someone makes a joke about your yellow teeth or your crooked smile hit them with the facts. You might call a perfect white smile 'American teeth,' but you're statistically more likely to have one yourself!