What Is That Dental Office Smell?

Like the smell of a new car, think of the dental office smell as a good one. When you detect that distinct odor, it means that your teeth are going to be well taken care of by a professional.
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In my long career as a NYC Cosmetic Dentist, I've been asked all manner of questions in regards to dentistry, tooth care, oral health and a variety of other matters.

I'm also asked some odd questions from time to time, many of which I ultimately use for blog posts. For example, "The history of Toothbrushes," was a question that came right from a patient. And one of the odder questions I've been asked is "just what is that smell in a dentist's office?"

Of course, the question first struck me as odd because as a dentist, I'm here every day, and thus, become almost immune to the smell. Kind of like how an automobile salesperson becomes immune to the new car smell. But upon thinking about it, yes, my patient was correct, there definitely is a distinct odor in a dentist's office. And like that preverbal new car smell, it's definitely unique and recognizable, yet is something you can't quite put your finger on. In essence, there's nothing else quite like it. So let me take a quick moment to explain just what that dental office smell is, and where it comes from.

The first thing to remember is the wide variety of services your dentist offers -- from filling teeth to root canals to crowns to whitening, just to name a few. And, as a result of providing these many services, a healthy assortment of chemicals, antiseptics, cements, molds and the like are required. In fact, most dental offices have at least a small lab right on-site, where these various compounds are used frequently. Let's take a closer look at some of these:

  • Formo-creasol - Formo-Creasol (sometimes spelled simply Formocreasol) is a compound that is made up of formaldehyde, cresol, glycerin and water. It is generally used for vital pulpotomy of primary teeth, and also as a temporary antiseptic to medicate during root canal therapy. And it has a very strong smell -- those of you who have had root canals undoubtedly recall a strong medicine-like smell about halfway through the procedure, right? That's the dentist applying Formo-Creasol to the area he cleared out.
  • Metacresylacetate (Cresatin) - Metacresylacetate (also known as Cresatin) is another root canal chemical that can be used as an antiseptic. And like most antiseptics, it has a fairly strong odor as well. Most root canals will find either Formo-creasol or Cresatin used, and sometimes even both will be used, depending on the dentist. And both will let you know they are in the room by their odor.
  • Eugenol - Eugenol is also referred to as "Clove Oil" because it's an active element in cloves, and sometimes used in perfume. But your dentist has a very different use for it - it's an excellent local antiseptic and analgesice, making it ideal for zinc-oxide eugenol paste that's used for temporary fillings and the like. For example, if you have a bridge or a crown done, you will first get a "temp", right? And the cemenet used to hold that temp smells pretty strong, doesn't it? That's because of Eugenol.
  • Acrylic Monomer - The last chemical I'll discuss is Acrylic Monomer, which is used in the plastics that are part of dentures and/or retainers and the like. And, like the chemicals above it, it has a distinct odor.
  • The odor of dental work - The last part I'll mention isn't really chemical in nature (well, technically, I suppose it is, but this isn't a science blog), but the simple odor that comes from dental work in general, particularly drilling and grinding. If you've sat in a dentist's chair and had a drill in your mouth, you know the distinct odor that comes from drilling teeth. It's a minor part of the dental office smell, but I'd be remiss if I left it out.

The five substances / instances above combine to create that distinct dental office smell. And admittedly, it's a smell unlike any other (even if I have become immune to it over the years). And even though it's a fairly distinct odor, I have yet to have anyone complain about it (although maybe that's due to the fact that during a root canal or similar, my instruments are cleverly positioned in their mouths)!

Also, like the new car smell, think of the dental office smell as a good smell. When you detect that distinct odor, it means that your teeth are going to be well taken care of by a caring professional (which, in the end, will get you far more mileage than a new car will ... although I can admit that getting a root canal is not nearly as much fun as driving away in a shiny new convertible! I'm sure most of you can agree with that as well).

Until next time, keep smiling!

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