Veneers, Whitening, and Subtle Imperfection: Here's What Goes Into a Six-Figure Smile

·9 min read

Dr. Jon Marashi insists that a smile, much like a shirt or jacket, can be dressed up or dressed down. “Let’s say you're Hollywood’s leading man, so the expectation is that you should have perfectly straight, white teeth,” he says, his voice bubbling over with excitement. “Well, what looks good on the red carpet might not look good for, say, a period piece when people didn’t have teeth whitening. Do you see the dilemma that creates?”

Dr. Marashi has built an impressive business off of navigating “dilemmas” exactly like these. In fact, his website bills him as “the dentist behind the world’s most famous smiles,” showing photos of him next to Kate Hudson, Ben Affleck, and an open-mouthed Ryan Seacrest. Just like plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills are known for the way they “do breasts” or “do noses,” Dr. Marashi is known for the way he “does teeth.” In this case, he swears his signature is subtlety.

“I call it ‘imperfect perfect,’” he explains. “What that means is we can have teeth that are white, but not blazing white. The teeth can even have certain imperfections in them.” When one client, a lead actor on a television show, got his teeth fixed by Dr. Marashi, he was hoping to keep an air of authenticity about his smile. “He asked me to put a chip on his front tooth that mimicked one he had from a rugby accident as a kid,” the doctor says.

To a certain class of cosmetic dentist, these subtleties are what separates the boys from the men. (Forgive the expression, but dentistry is still intensely male-dominated.) The rising class of celebrity cosmetic dentists creates yet another way in which the rich and famous are able to tweak themselves to an imperceptible level of perfection. But the skill required for a subtly perfect smile is—according to the two Beverly Hills dentists consulted for this piece—far more than just medical excellence. It is, instead, an art.

Dr. Sam Saleh, who also has a practice in London, also boasts an impressive clientele, having gone worked on the mouths of celebrities like The Weeknd and Renée Zellweger. Like Dr. Marashi, he is famous for his porcelain veneers, thin custom-made shells that improve the appearance of the teeth. To obtain a mouth crafted by Dr. Saleh, there’s a five-step process (barring any other more structural dental work that may need to be done, like implants, fillings, or root canals). First, Dr. Saleh takes X-rays, photography, and even video of the patient’s teeth. “I need to study their faces, how their lips move, how much tooth structure they show when they smile,” he says. From there, a scan is taken of the upper and lower teeth, which results in a 3D printout of the patient’s mouth.

Then, Dr. Saleh designs the new teeth, with his preference being 10 veneers on the top and 10 on bottom. By the time the patient is back in his chair, there’s a before and after model of their old and your new mouth. If they like the look of his work, then they are fitted for their temporary veneers—an “acrylic reproduction of what the final product would be.” What occurs after is effectively a test drive. “If it’s a celebrity, they go and show their friends or their manager—whoever is representing them. If it’s a housewife, she goes home to show her husband, her mother, her friends,” Dr. Saleh says.

By the third visit, Dr. Saleh and his patient work out any modifications that are necessary. If all goes according to plan, they will have their veneers placed on visit four. And finally, they’re back for a fifth visit for a general check-up and review.

The secret to Dr. Saleh’s sauce, he says, is that he’s able to work nimbly because his laboratory is all on-site. That means that the ceramists are literally right down the hall from his operating rooms, and he’s checking in on the veneers being made for each of his patients to ensure they meet his exacting standards. “So if a celebrity brings their manager to their veneer appointment and they decide during the placement that they want the teeth to be a hair longer, the lab is right there. We can do it on-site to make modifications before we permanently bond the porcelain into the teeth,” he says.

Dr. Marashi’s, for his part, says what sets his work apart is in the art of how he prepares your existing teeth, and crafts and colors the new ones. Before even contacting the ceramists, Dr. Marashi puts a bonding material all throughout his patient’s mouth, resulting in a molding. He then, in a matter of minutes, sculpts the material into a new-and-improved smile so the patient can understand the adjustments necessary.

From there, Dr. Marashi pores over the porcelain restorations. “This is the artistry. It’s what my eyes can see and my hands can do,” he says. “It’s very difficult to teach people to see certain shapes and angulations.” A tooth is not just flat white, he explains—it has gradations of yellow closer to the root. And perfectly bright white, while a coveted symbol of health (and wealth), doesn’t necessarily look authentic on everyone—it might depend on their skin tone or age—so education and dialogue about coloring and tooth length is essential for the client. While the process can take weeks to get right, he’s been known to get it done faster—in just days—if a high-demand client requires it.

But Dr. Marashi also claims his “imperfect-perfect” approach applies to how much he’s willing to do. “My mantra, unequivocally, is as few [veneers] as possible to get the job done. Because more veneers does not necessarily equate to a better smile,” he says.

The more custom fit of porcelain veneers—especially those designed by doctors willing to work on individual teeth to specifically fit your mouth—also means that they can conceal other imperfections, like crowding or gaps, which saves a lot of time and discomfort from getting back into the saddle with braces. “They’re a wonderful solution to take care of mild crookedness, crowding, spaces, or shifting patterns. That’s something I do routinely,” Dr. Marashi says.

A lot of this may sound similar enough in scope to what you’ve read or seen about veneers. But the one thing both Dr. Marashi and Dr. Saleh both warned about, virtually in unison, was the destruction of one’s teeth for veneers. Maybe you’ve seen the videos on TikTok of people with scary pointed fangs for teeth, only to reveal a wide, bright white set of teeth afterwards. Many of those folks, especially those who are in their 20s, could be in for a hell of a time (and a hell of a lot of money) to reverse that damage when their veneers inevitably need touch-ups.

With a filed-down tooth, “You now have something that’s fragile onto which the porcelain is bonded,” Dr. Saleh explains. “Therefore, biting may fracture the tooth at its neck, which is not good...and if you’re neglectful, you can have decay underneath the veneer until the tooth becomes unsalvageable and needs extraction.”

But therein lies the problem. The kinds of veneers you may have seen on social media are still expensive—costing around $1,000 or more per tooth. But to use a more responsible process with Dr. Marashi or Dr. Saleh, you’re looking at a whopping $3,500 to $4,500 per tooth—and that’s excluding any other dental care that’s necessary before bonding the porcelain. Some quick math would indicate that if you wanted your top ten and bottom ten teeth done, it wouldn't take much to push into six figures for a “imperfect-perfect” smile.

Of course, exorbitant costs for dental care are probably not all that unfamiliar to any American. It doesn't take much more than skimming a CDC summary of the state of the nation's oral health to realize this is a slow-moving crisis, with marginalized populations reporting higher instances of untreated tooth decay, periodontitis, and even oral cancer. Some vital procedures like crowns and implants can run a similar price tag to what the Beverly Hills dentists charge for a veneer. And yet, having “bad teeth” still holds its invisible stigma, making bright white, straight teeth a marker of beauty and one’s socioeconomic status.

Certainly Drs. Saleh and Marashi are not personally to blame for the ongoing crisis of American dental care, and both purport to be doing their best to address the issue head-on, even from Beverly Hills. Dr. Saleh recently gifted a new smile to a frontline worker, and he says his practice works to make treatments more accessible to people who may be in need of work but cannot afford to pay for it all up front. Dr. Marashi, on the other hand, launched a company called Byte, a start-up akin to Roman or hims that delivers high-quality, custom-fit trays for teeth straightening and whitening that patients can do at home—for a fraction of the cost of an orthodontist or professional whitening.

While we are a long way from equitable dental care—understanding the ins and outs of the finest dentists money can buy still has its perks. As with anything that comes with our personal appearances, context is everything. So while you may not be able to spring for six-figure veneers, maybe you’ll be able to find peace with the imperfections of your own smile. And no, not just because Dr. Marashi charges $4,000 to make a single, tiny imperfection in the tooth of an A-lister. But maybe because there’s a sick sort of peace in knowing the high price that some people simply have to pay for their beauty.

GQ grooming columnist Phillip Picardi talked to legendary perfumer Frédéric Malle for some advice on giving a cologne or perfume as a present. (For starters: maybe don't!)

Originally Appeared on GQ