Update January, 2017: It has been less than a year since I had my porcelain veneers done at a dentist office in Playa del Carmen, Mexico (see article below). Within two weeks, the first veneer fell off. I had it replaced by a different dentist, as I was back on the road by then. It stayed on for less than a month that time. Last month, another one fell off – this time one of my front teeth. I woke up with it in my mouth in the middle of the night. I shudder to think that I could have choked on it if I’d breathed it into my windpipe. Fortunately, I was in Thailand, where they have excellent dental services at a very affordable price. I have spent the last month replacing all six of the veneers put on by Dr. Millan Valdivia with crowns. I also had to have one of the two crowns he installed redone. My Thai dentist believes his preparation work was fine, but that the veneers were poorly done. Rather than taking the time to replace them, he put them on with too much cement. This allowed bacteria to get into the cement and begin to eat it away. In retrospect, I would never again opt for veneers. They never felt completely durable or strong to me. Rather, I would opt for crowns from the beginning.

I have always disliked my teeth. As a child my mouth was so crammed with teeth that three of them could not descend. Two years of braces and three pulled teeth later, my smile was better, but braces had done nothing to fix a front tooth that was naturally discolored. Even worse, I suffered a broken jaw during a car accident at the age of 18 and my two front teeth went from being perfectly aligned to overlapping.

In my thirties, I finally got tired of looking at my crooked yellow front tooth and had it replaced with a crown. Unfortunately, the dentist did not do a good job. He remedied the crookedness, but the color was off. Instead of yellow, my front tooth was now grayish – not a good match for my existing teeth. For the next 30 years I was so self-conscious that I avoided having my photo taken. On occasions when I couldn’t avoid being photographed, I edited the color of the tooth with Photoshop. And then, this past February, I spent a month in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

I had been to Playa before and knew that many Americans take advantage of cheaper medical and dental services south of the border, but I’d never before investigated what is commonly called dental tourism in Mexico. Fortunately, an American woman staying at my B&B told me about a local dentist, Dr. Millan Valdivia of Dental Art Center, who is highly regarded by the expat community. On a whim, I scheduled an appointment to see what could be done to fix my teeth.

Before and after shots - the result of my dental tourism in Mexico. What a difference!

Before and after shots – the result of my dental tourism in Mexico. What a difference!

Dr. Millan’s office was spotless and his equipment state-of-the-art. After looking at my teeth, he suggested either porcelain veneers or composites. In both cases, because all eight of my upper front teeth would be made at the same time (two crowns and six veneers), they would be identical in color. He explained that composites would be a bit stronger, but would stain over time with the consumption of coffee or strongly colored foods like blueberries. Porcelains, although they were a bit less sturdy, would never stain. Both would last 10-15 years at a minimum and would cost a total of $2,300, rather than the $17,000 to $20,000 I would pay in the States. Without doing any further research, I decided upon porcelain veneers and began the process immediately.

Dr. Millan removed my two existing crowns (the front tooth and one further back), and then began drilling away the facing of the other six existing teeth. Too late, I realized that this was an irreversible process. Veneers are exactly what the name implies – a thin sheet of shaped porcelain that is cemented on top of the existing tooth. However, in order for them to look natural, some of the existing tooth must be ground down to make room for the veneer. There would be no going back; I would have to keep and maintain the veneers for the rest of my life, or at the very least, have them all replaced by crowns.

When he was done drilling, Dr. Millan made impressions of my teeth with a putty-like substance and then cemented on temporary veneers. They felt a little funny, but having had crowns before, I knew that they would quickly begin to feel like my own teeth. After two hours in the dentist’s chair, all I could think about was food. Dr. Millan told me not to eat anything hard until my permanent veneers were installed, so I opted for guacamole and taco chips at a nearby cafe. Halfway through my meal, one of the temporaries popped off. Even though it was after hours, Dr. Millan met me back at his office and re-cemented the veneer, with an admonishment to eat only SOFT foods for the next five days – no more taco chips!

The following week I headed back to the dentist’s office for my permanent veneers. He drilled a bit more before cementing them on, then spent a good deal of time shaping the teeth so they did not look “too perfect.” When he was satisfied, Dr. Millan snapped a couple of photos of the final product and then handed me a mirror. I was speechless. Not only did I have a perfect smile, I looked ten years younger.

Because I’d had the temporaries, the permanent veneers felt like my real teeth almost immediately, and I was relieved that I would be able to begin eating normally again. A week later, after leaving Mexico to visit my family in the States, I bit into a soft piece of pizza and the permanent veneer popped off the exact same tooth. Fortunately, I managed to rescue it unbroken. I emailed Dr. Millan and he suggested that any dentist could glue it back on, so I made an appointment with my dentist in the Chicagoland area.

At that point, I did what I should have done in the first place – I researched porcelain veneers. No two websites agreed. Some dentists insisted that patients should even be able to bite into caramel apples after the permanent veneers were installed, while others said that apples, corn-on-the-cob, and ice should never be eaten with veneers.

A few days later, my regular dentist drilled off the residual cement and reapplied the veneer, with a warning that I might have trouble with that particular tooth. She explained that temporary veneers are flat and just stick to the surface of the tooth, while permanents are supposed to have a lower lip that partially wraps around the tooth. For some reason, this one veneer did not have much of a wrap-around, but she also said that Dr. Millan had done a good job otherwise. She also gave me clear instructions about caring for the veneers – no apples, corn-on-the-cob, or ice for the rest of my life, adding that tearing into hard, crusty bread with my front teeth would also not be a good idea. Finally, she suggested that I chew anything the least bit hard with my back teeth.

I hadn’t realized the enormity of my decision to get porcelain veneers, but I’m still happy I did it. I don’t like apples, have never chewed ice, and I can live without corn-on-the cob. Crusty bread I love, but I can either tear it with my hands or bite into it with the crowns rather than the veneers, as they are much more durable. Looking back, had I done more research or asked more questions of Dr. Millan before proceeding, I might have opted for all crowns rather than the veneers, but that’s still a possibility for the future. In the meantime, I’m loving my new, very affordable smile!

Editor’s note: Playa del Carmen is very convenient for dental tourism in Mexico, as it is located about 45 minutes from Cancun, Mexico. Affordable flights to Cancun are often available through the major airlines (I flew from Cancun to Chicago on American, one way, for $123). Upon arrival in Cancun, take a taxi to the bus station in Cancun for 50 pesos (about $1.35) and then take a van to Playa del Carmen for 30 pesos (less than a dollar). Dr. Millan’s office is located on the corner of Calle 8 and Avenida 30, diagonally across from Walmart and an easy walk from the bus station. There are many hotels and motels in the same area. Major credit cards are accepted, however if you intend to use a credit card, be sure to notify your bank in advance that you will be making charges in Mexico. Dr. Millan’s email is [email protected] and the office phone number is +52 (country code) 984-873-2819.