By  on June 5, 2009

Forget “Say cheese.” Perhaps “Say Smigel” is more apropos.

After all, Dr. Irwin Smigel is deemed the father of aesthetic dentistry for pioneering tooth bonding for cosmetic purposes in the late Seventies.

That contribution has landed him in the National Museum of Dentistry, which pays tribute to Smigel with “The Smile Experience,” a permanent exhibit that opens Saturday.

An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Baltimore, Md.-based museum showcases George Washington’s teeth (no, they are not made of wood), a Wall of Smiles of visitors’ pearly whites and historical anecdotes. For instance, ancient Mayans decorated their teeth with jade and the Elizabethans whitened their teeth with acid.

“The biggest thing I did was I changed the way people thought about dentistry,” said Smigel, sitting in his Midtown Manhattan office, where he continues to practice. He recalled that, more than 45 years ago, when he was graduating from New York University College of Dentistry, the dean said to his father, also a dentist, “He has some crazy ideas about cosmetics. Straighten him out.” His father either did not heed the advice or failed to discourage his son, because by the late Seventies, Smigel had developed the cosmetic bonding procedure and introduced it to millions of Americans on the TV show “That’s Incredible.” At the time, he also founded the American Society for Dental Aesthetics.

Soon after Smigel’s small-screen cameo, Hollywood came calling, including Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Bennett and Andy Williams. Several of his current celebrity clients include Bruce Willis and Jimmy Fallon.

Smigel also lured the Tinseltown set with his whitening line, Supersmile, which began as a toothpaste that uses calcium peroxide to clean the stain-attracting sticky film (or protein pellicle) from the porosis bonding material. Materials used for bonding have since improved, but the formula Smigel developed — over the course of fours years — remains virtually unchanged. “It’s always relevant,” said Smigel. He noted that most toothpastes contain silica, or sand, an abrasive agent. Supersmile does not.

He went on to develop more products, including mouthwash, prerinse, a tongue brush, floss, gum and a whitening accelerator gel to use in combination with the toothpaste. The toothpaste, by the way, as Supersmile devotees know, is designed to be used on a dry toothbrush — “If you don’t disrupt it with water, you really get the pop,” advised Smigel. He formulated the whitening gum with a cigar-smoking friend in mind. Its star ingredient, xylitol, helps stop and prevent tooth decay, said Smigel. It’s now one of Supersmile’s top-selling products.

“Fifteen years ago, there was no at-home whitening category,” said Tom Mastronardi, Supersmile’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, adding that now it’s a $7 billion industry.

Over the years, consumer products giants, such as Bausch & Lomb and Johnson & Johnson, have approached the company, but Supersmile remains privately held with a strong family influence. Smigel’s wife, Lucia, is chief executive officer and president and is ever ready with pithy one-liners — “Only floss the teeth you want to keep.” Their daughter, Bellenca, is a vice president.

Supersmile is sold in 1,000 doors, including Dillard’s, Bluemercury, Zitomer, CVS Pharmacy’s Beauty 360, spas, dental offices and on Drugstore.com. The company would not comment on financial figures, but industry sources estimate Supersmile has generated roughly $20 million in sales.

Reflecting on his contribution, Smigel said: “You get a lot of pleasure in dentistry now.”

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