When a patient comes to our office, interested in cosmetic dentistry but is concerned about the strength and durability of porcelain veneers, one of the things we help them understand is that porcelain veneers are made with one of the strongest materials that we can use to create a cosmetic look. In fact, the “porcelain” restorations strengthen the tooth itself.The tiles on our waiting room floor are all porcelain and they have been in great condition for over 15 years despite all the salt and traffic on them everyday. The durability of what we might think of as a typically fragile material is astounding. It’s porcelain, but not like you might think. It’s not like a porcelain doll’s fragile construction.
But if they aren’t, why do we call them porcelain veneers? Well, it’s kind of a long story…
The Long Road to Porcelain Teeth
The origins of porcelain can be traced back to China around 200 AD. We’re not entirely sure about the date, because by the time it shows up in records it seems to have been around for a while. As with many of China’s great technological discoveries, porcelain first reached Europe via the Silk Road, carried overland for thousands of miles, then shipped from ports in the Levant to Italy. That’s where it received the name we call it today: “porcellana,” Latin for cowrie shells, which the material resembles in color and translucency.
It took about 1000 years for Europeans to learn the secret of how to make porcelain, and another 500 years before they realized that this was the perfect material for making denture teeth. “Mineral teeth,” as they were called, became an alternative to putting human teeth in dentures, but didn’t catch on because they were fragile and because there was a constant supply of human teeth to be harvested. The constant wars of the day meant there were plenty of dead soldiers whose teeth could be harvested for free, and, failing that, endemic poverty meant poor people were happy to sell you their teeth so they could afford to eat (irony!).
Porcelain Veneers and the Hollywood Smile
It wasn’t until the 1920s that a pioneering dentist named Charles L. Pincus used porcelain to make veneers. Few people had good teeth in the 20s, but Hollywood was dedicated to the illusion of making everything perfect, so Pincus was recruited by makeup pioneer Max Factor to make these smiles look good. These veneers were so fragile that stars had to take them out when they weren’t filming, but they started a trend.
Slowly, porcelain veneers began to spread outside of Hollywood. They looked beautiful, but the fragility was a big problem. Improvements in the process made them a little more durable, so that people could sometimes get ten years of life out of them, if they were careful.
By the 1980s new materials had been developed that were stronger, but they didn’t look as attractive as porcelain. It wasn’t until the 2000s that we’ve really seen other materials developed that are as attractive as porcelain, but much stronger.
Today, few veneers are made of true porcelain. They’re made of lithium disilicate or other advanced ceramics that are many times stronger. But we still call them porcelain veneers.
A Common Type of Misnomer
Partly, porcelain veneers are still called that because it’s the way we handle a lot of things in our language.
Sometimes a name persists because something used to be made of that material. For example, you might sometimes talk about “tin foil,” even though you know that the foil you buy at the store is really made of aluminum. Before aluminum was common, a similar foil made of tin became common. Although aluminum has almost completely replaced tin, people still call it tin foil sometimes.
And many people still call some of their golf clubs “woods” even though they’re made of steel or titanium or carbon fiber.
We commonly talk about “steamrollers,” because the first rollers were steam-powered like other vehicles of the day.
And sometimes the material wasn’t really an ingredient in the first place. For example, pencil lead never actually contained lead. It was just that people thought graphite was lead, so that’s what they called it.
So it’s not strange that we still call veneers “porcelain veneers,” even if they’re not made of porcelain. In fact, many types of “porcelain” you see on a daily basis aren’t really porcelain. Your bathtub may be described as porcelain , but it’s not real porcelain. It’s porcelain enamel, a marketing term for vitreous (glass) enamel.
More Than a Holdover
But there’s more to the name than just something held over from “the olde days.” The word “porcelain” has a powerful, evocative quality that immediately gives you a visual impression of what we’re describing. You have an intrinsic sense of the whiteness and the translucency. More than that, you understand that this is something precious and rare. Dental veneers just seems bland by comparison.
Today’s porcelain veneers may not have been carried thousands of miles overland from a country that seems almost mythic, but they are treated with the same level of care as we custom-design them for each patient, and they’re crafted deftly by the highest quality labs in the country. You will be delighted with their beauty and translucency–and even more delighted when you can bite naturally into foods without concern that they’ll chip or shatter. That’s the only disadvantage of the name: it promotes the myth that they’re fragile.