Like many 18-year-olds around the world, Kim Sophorn’s teeth are decked out with braces: rows of metal brackets adorned with bright turquoise bands. But unlike most of her orthodontic-sporting peers, the Phnom Penh high-schooler’s braces serve no medical purpose. They’re a fashion statement.
While teens in most countries view orthodontic treatment as one of puberty’s unavoidable tribulations, like chronic acne or growth spurts, dental hardware is enjoying surprising popularity as a fashion craze in Southeast Asia.
Fake braces, also known as fashion braces, caught on as early as 2006 in Thailand; Indonesia and Malaysia followed. The fad arrived in Cambodia this year, and has spread rapidly via social media.
But as fake braces become a coveted accessory for some young Cambodians, experts caution that the faux facial hardware, which often involves unlicensed dentists and unregulated orthodontic materials, could pose serious health risks.
The growing popularity of fashion braces in the Kingdom is largely thanks to the efforts of 20-year-old entrepreneur Suos Sovannarin, whose popular Facebook-based delivery service holds a near-monopoly on the market here.
Sovannarin began selling fake braces online in May. Earlier this month, he estimated that he has supplied kits to 1,000 customers.
“I saw this was a new trend that was very popular in Thailand,” he says. “I wanted to bring this trend to Cambodia, and it’s so successful now.”
Sovannarin says demand for the product far outpaces supply, with his page receiving up to 3,000 messages each week. He’s hired a second employee to help him fill orders, and soon hopes to ditch the delivery-only model in favour of a storefront.
The timeline on his Facebook shop is flooded with photos of equipment, payment receipts and close-ups of smiles studded with brightly coloured bands. One picture shows a Cambodian passport atop stacks of dollars, riel and Thai baht, accompanied by a message containing Sovannarin’s phone number and Line ID.
Some of his selfies appear on the page, too, though his smile is unadorned: the fake-braces magnate admits he’s “too lazy” to wear them himself.
The tools of the trade are familiar to anyone who’s spent time in an orthodontist’s office: archwire, brackets, bands, adhesive and even the wax that wearers mould over the pointy metal edges to prevent irritation.
But despite his role as Cambodia’s preeminent fake-braces dealer, Sovannarin holds no dentistry degree or formal training. He imports the materials from a Thai supplier, then refers customers to local dentists for moulds and fittings.
Depending on the options – brackets on each tooth or a single coloured wire; Mickey Mouse-shaped bands or regular – a set of materials can cost between $20 and $90.
High-school student Kim Sophorn first encountered fashion braces on Sovannarin’s Facebook page.
“After I found them on Facebook, I talked about it with my friend who’s interested in new trends and we decided to buy [them],” she says.
Sophorn had the braces installed by a local dentist, as did seven friends. By her count, 10 out of the 41 students in her Grade 12 class have embraced the trend.
Another of Sovannarin’s customers, 27-year-old Siem Reap resident Son Vuthy, says he and his wife decided to buy fake braces, intrigued by the product’s novelty value. But after wearing them for a few months he had them removed. The look that appealed to the toothsome couple was not, he realised, universally popular.
“My colleagues criticised me,” he says. “They said it looked awful and weird.”
Dental experts are more concerned with the health risks than social alienation, and caution that unprofessional products could expose wearers to a wide range of health issues.
Dr Phit Veasna, an orthodontics specialist at Phnom Penh’s Roomchang Dental Hospital – which does not offer the fake-braces service – says the use of unsterilised equipment or substandard adhesives could cause infections and other illnesses.
Sovannarin says the products he sells are identical to those found in professional orthodontic clinics. But at Roomchang, the price tag for a set of real braces, excluding labour, can reach $500. Even though Chinese-made braces can come in under $100, Veasna says Sovannarin’s $20 deal is too good to be true.
It gets worse: fake braces also expose wearers to the same risks as real braces. Dr Hok Sim Kor, vice dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at Phnom Penh’s International University, says wearers who practice poor hygiene run the risk of “demineralisation of the tooth, tooth decay or gum diseases”.
And if fake braces aren’t properly attached, she says, “the braces or wire can slip into the throat or [injure] the mucosa in the mouth”.
What’s more, wearers of fashion braces trying to beautify their smile may end up doing the opposite. Glued in place and left unattended, fake braces have the potential to throw well-aligned teeth out of whack.
While Sovannarin says fake braces can achieve 50 per cent of the straightening effect of real braces, Dr Kor warns that “if the braces are put in the wrong position without regular adjustment or check-up[s], the teeth will move in [the] wrong direction”.
And Roomchang’s Veasna says clinics offering fashion braces are likely run by so-called “traditional dentists” – practitioners who have been trained by family members and have no formal dental education.
One Phnom Penh dentist, who asked not to be identified, admits he fitted an insistent customer with fake braces – albeit reluctantly – on the grounds that if he had not done so, someone else would have. The customer, he says, didn’t care about the potential risks.
Dr Kor – who is also president-elect of the Cambodia Dental Association – says no organisation here has worked to educate people about fake braces.
Other countries have tried. In 2006, Thailand introduced fines and prison time for the sellers, importers and manufacturers of fake braces, according to a CBS News report from that year. But regulation failed to end the practice: in 2013, the UK’s Daily Mail reported that fake braces, some of which were found to contain lead, had been linked to the deaths of two Thai teens.
Dr Veasna is pessimistic about the Ministry of Health’s ability to regulate dentistry in Cambodia, explaining that prior attempts to shutter unlicensed dental clinics have proven unsuccessful. And, she adds, fake braces are such a novelty that they aren’t yet on the ministry’s radar.
“I don’t think they know about them,” she says.
Indeed, spokesman Ly Sovann says he has yet to receive reports of fake braces, but adds that if the ministry found they were a health risk it would act to regulate the practice.
And, he insists, there are no unlicensed dental clinics in the country. (Last year, dental experts consulted by the Post estimated that there could be several hundred traditional dental clinics operating in Phnom Penh alone.)
Believers aren’t worried. Aficionado Sophorn ignored her dentist and put her faith in the wisdom of crowds.
“The dentist told me it’s not good to wear them for a long time because they will make my teeth decay,” she says. “But I don’t think so because I saw a lot of people wearing them.”
Siem Reap resident Vuthy feels the same way; he ignored a clinic’s warning against installing non-professional orthodontic gear.
“I think it’s OK because a lot of people wear it and it’s very popular in foreign countries,” he says.
At this stage it is impossible to know where the craze will go. Will it remain a risky, unregulated frontier of dentistry or, like many trends, will it fizzle out?
For Roomchang’s Dr Veasna, who has spent much of her career fitting genuine braces in the mouths of reluctant youths, the newfound enthusiasm for fashion braces is baffling.
“Most of the kids, if we do braces for them, they don’t want to put them in,” she says. “But if it’s for the fashion girls, yes, they like it. I don’t know why.”
Additional reporting by Bora Sunjolinet.