For many of us, dental care is sort of mysterious. We know we need to brush and floss and get professional cleanings at least annually. Our typical daily concerns with teeth center around preventing gingivitis and tooth decay. But when our needs deviate from these routines, we sometimes aren’t sure where to turn for treatment.

Generally speaking, there are two major areas of dentistry: general and cosmetic. (There are deeper sub-specialties, but in broad terms, this covers it.) Many procedures leave patients unsure whether they can see their regular practitioner or if they need a specialized practitioner, especially when their general dentist has discovered an issue and offered to treat it for them.


A good way to begin to separate the two major areas is to note that orthodontics fall under cosmetic dentistry. Most people understand that orthodontic care involves alignment and bite issues that typically are corrected with braces. They also realize that much of the time, braces don’t necessarily have a major and immediate health impact. Instead, they are necessary to make the patient more confident in his or her appearance.

So a thumbnail sketch of the two dentistry types would show that dentally necessary procedures like cavity repair and root canals would fall into general dentistry, while braces, caps, veneers, and other actions taken mostly for appearance’s sake are considered cosmetic. When a trip to the general dentist reveals something that the practitioner offers to repair–“just to make it look better”–you may be venturing into the cosmetic arena and should probably consider seeing a specialist. It’s not that a general dentist can’t do these needed procedures, it’s just that a cosmetic dentist will have more experience and would likely be more able to address unexpected issues while providing you with a long lasting finish on your procedure.

It is worth noting that much of what is considered cosmetic dentistry does still have health benefits. A mild overbite or underbite can make a person feel self-conscious, but more pronounced ones can have significant impacts. Underbites can very often cause chipped teeth, and either issue can create difficulty sleeping due to snoring or simple drying of the mouth.

Caps and crowns also spread across both categories. Certain chipped or damaged teeth can last a lifetime with no complications, but others can accelerate decay and lead to more serious problems that can even reach into the jawbone. Tooth decay in itself can do far more than lead to dentures. There are strong links between rotting teeth and related infections that can damage the heart or other organs.

The overlap between cosmetic and general dentistry with each other and with overall physical health is significant. There are certain conditions that don’t affect other body systems, and some that do feed directly into the rest of the body. The important thing is to find practitioners in both areas that are experienced, competent, and trustworthy in order to get good guidance when the time comes for you to seek treatment, and to identify those caregivers before you need them.