Understanding Orthodontics Vs. Cosmetic Dentistry

Woman considering orthodontics vs. cosmetic dentistry.

Between posting on social media, attending Zoom meetings, and speaking on FaceTime, we spend a lot of time looking at ourselves these days. 

In one sense, this level of self-familiarization can be a great thing. Consistently working to look your best online and in real life can lead to a more positive body image—a key component of good mental health. On the other hand, when people don’t feel comfortable with their appearance, it can have the opposite effect and lower overall happiness. 

To help people feel more confident in their appearance, dental and orthodontic practices have long provided services that:

  • Correct teeth misalignments for a straighter smile
  • Replace missing teeth with dental implants
  • Eliminate stains for a whiter overall smile

Beginning in the 1980s, some of these treatments became grouped together under the umbrella term “cosmetic dentistry.” However, this term can be a bit confusing given that orthodontists also heavily focus on improving patient appearance via teeth straightening and smile reconstruction. As a result, some patients may be confused over whether an orthodontist or cosmetic dentist will best suit their needs. 

If you’re looking for clarification on the “orthodontics vs. cosmetic dentistry” dynamic, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll break down how these two specialties intersect and differ from one another.

So, What’s the Difference Between Orthodontists and Cosmetic Dentists?

At first glance, orthodontists and cosmetic dentists may appear to fulfill similar care roles. After all, they both work to improve patient smiles by fixing things like misaligned bites and damaged teeth. However, the ways in which orthodontists and cosmetic dentists provide treatment are very different. 

Orthodontics is a specialty of dentistry that is focused on treating teeth and jaw misalignments. Similar to how dermatologists are medical doctors who undergo extensive training to work with children, orthodontists are dentists who  attend 3 years of extra training as part of a “residency program” after the 4 years of dental school to learn how to diagnose, treat, and prevent jaw/teeth misalignment. They spend almost as much time in orthodontic training as they did in dental school. Orthodontists do not do fillings or cleanings etc, they specialize in straightening teeth and retention.

Accredited orthodontics programs are known to be extremely competitive, which is part of the reason why there are only 11,000 orthodontists currently practicing in the US as compared to 200,000 general dentists. Only 1-2 graduating dentists get into an orthodontic residency program per year per class.

Compared to orthodontics, cosmetic dentistry is a much broader field that requires no special credentials to practice. As a term, “cosmetic dentistry” refers to a range of treatments that any general dentist can provide to fix aesthetic issues related to one’s teeth, bite, and gums. Although some of these treatments do improve oral functionality, the main goal of cosmetic dentistry is to improve smile appearance—not to treat health problems.   

Orthodontic treatments, on the other hand, focus on improving oral health by correcting bite and jaw issues. As a result of treatment, the patient’s smile will look significantly better than it did before.

Orthodontics vs. Cosmetic Dentistry: Differences in Treatment Options and Goals

Although orthodontics and cosmetic dentistry are two different dental disciplines, they do intersect in a few ways. For instance, orthodontists and cosmetic dentists both offer treatments for crooked teeth. 

However, the ways in which they treat crooked teeth can be very different:

  • An orthodontist will treat crooked teeth with either Invisalign, fixed braces, or a similar oral appliance/device. These treatment options will permanently correct tooth alignment to create a smile that is both better-looking and healthier.
  • A cosmetic dentist will often treat crooked teeth with traditional porcelain veneers. Although porcelain veneers will help teeth appear straighter, the natural teeth are not moved and treatment requires permanent enamel removal, which makes teeth weaker.

In addition to veneer treatment, many cosmetic dentists offer Invisalign as well. However, because cosmetic dentists lack the specialty training of orthodontists, they can only offer Invisalign to patients with very minor alignment issues. Minor alignment issues can very quickly turn into major alignment issues if not treated correctly the first time. Comparatively, an orthodontist can use Invisalign in conjunction with other specialty treatments to correct complex oral health issues. 

In this comparison, we can see the general “orthodontics vs cosmetic dentistry” dynamic at play. The orthodontist will create a comprehensive treatment plan to improve the patient’s oral health and oral beauty. Meanwhile, the cosmetic dentist will likely focus solely on improving appearance and may not be able to correct any alignment issues that go beyond aesthetics. 

That said, cosmetic dentistry is a valid treatment option for a number of smile problems. For example, cosmetic dentists are great at fixing issues like missing/damaged teeth and stained smiles. When it comes to smile alignment, however, you can’t beat the specialty knowledge and comprehensive treatment options provided by an orthodontist. 

If you’re trying to decide between visiting an orthodontist and cosmetic dentist to treat your crooked teeth, consider the comparison chart below for guidance on which treatment option may be right for you:

Invisalign/Braces Treatment from an Orthodontist 

Traditional Veneers from a Cosmetic Dentist

Permanent solution for crooked teeth

Prosthetic solution that will likely need to be replaced in the future

Increases smile functionality 

Non-permanent solution, often without increased function

Helps alleviate the muscle strain associated with misaligned jaws

Does not address medical issues associated with misalignment

Patients will retain their natural smile

Requires permanent alteration of the natural tooth

Treatment typically takes a few months 

Treatment takes a few weeks to complete

Ready to Permanently Fix Alignment Issues?

Cosmetic dentistry is a great treatment avenue if you want to treat aesthetic issues like damaged teeth or a discolored smile. However, there are significant limits to what a cosmetic dentist can do to treat a misaligned smile.

Orthodontic treatment offers a way to obtain a permanently straight smile without any compromises. At Beverly Hills Orthodontics, Dr. Monica Madan has been helping patients achieve perfect smiles on their own terms since 2008. Recognized as Diamond Plus Invisalign Provider, Dr. Madan and the BHO team work hand-in-hand with patients to transform smiles, improve health, and boost confidence.