Britain's Bad Smiles Revealed

The Brits and their bad teeth have been the butt of many an American joke.

A recent online survey conducted in the U.K. may help to explain the cause of the national stereotype: Some are practicing dentistry on themselves at home. No surgery, no sanitation, no equipment and a lot of pain.

Which?, a British consumer magazine, asked customers online last month if they had ever performed dentistry on themselves. And of the 2,631 adults asked, 210 said they had.

The do-it-yourselfers described procedures ranging from popping an ulcer with a pin to pulling out a tooth by tying a piece of string to a door handle.

From this unofficial poll, which the British government has denounced, Which? estimated that as many as 3 million Brits look after their own teeth, which would work out to about 5 percent of the U.K.'s estimated 61 million residents.

The consumer magazine found that fear of the dentist was the most common reason for avoiding the dental clinic. People would rather check their bank balance, go to the gym or hit the shops on a busy afternoon than sit in the dentist's chair.

The survey found that more than a quarter of do-it-yourselfers had tried to pull out a tooth with pliers, 11 percent had used household glue to stick down a filling or crown, 8 percent had tried to mend dentures themselves and 6 percent had stuck down a loose filling with chewing gum.

The most common home-dental procedure, however, is tooth whitening, with 30 percent attempting to whiten their teeth with household cleaning products.

The British Dental Association (BDA) strongly advises against resorting to do-it-yourself care. Susie Sanderson, chairwoman of the BDA executive board, said, "While worries about accessing or paying for dental care can clearly be a concern, it really isn't advisable to resort to do-it-yourself care. We hear too many horror stories about people pulling out the wrong tooth, or causing themselves to have an infection, and urge anyone considering this path to think again."

The BDA suggests contacting local dentists to deal with any concerns, although that's apparently easier said than done -- which is what prompted Which? to get to the bottom of the real problems with British dentistry today.

According to Which? health campaigner Jenny Driscoll, the research "shows the desperate measures people will resort to. Everyone should have access to good-quality dental treatment. It's not just the thought of going to the dentist that can bring us out in a cold sweat. For many, actually getting good treatment can be a real ordeal."

There is speculation that reforms made in 2006 to state-supplemented dental care are to blame for limited access today. The changes were implemented to improve access to dental services. But the result was that around 2,000 dentists moved from state to private clinics, leaving up to 1 million patients without dentists.

Philippa Savage said she a was a victim of the 2006 dental cull. "The whole practice went private, apart from one dentist," she told ABC News. "You were offered the chance to go private. But if you could not afford the care, you were left without a dentist."

Apart from the difficulty of getting your foot in the door (especially at a government-funded dental institution), many Britons suffer from dental phobia.

One lady in her 50s, who preferred to remain unnamed, said she chewed with one side of her mouth in order to avoid a cavity. The result was that half of her teeth became considerably more worn down than the other. But she managed to avoid that dreaded trip to the dentist.

A few days ago, an inquest into the death of Sophie Waller of Cornwall found that she died as a result of a phobia of dentists. The 8-year-old had refused to open her mouth to eat, drink or speak after an operation to remove her baby teeth. The inquest heard that Sophie developed the phobia after a routine dental check-up two years before her death. Doctors found no food in her stomach after she died.

The British government denounced the findings of Which? as unreliable. The Department of Health's chief dental officer, Barry Cockcroft, questioned the survey on the grounds that the findings come from "an online multiple-choice survey that has no statistical credibility."

Survey Estimate Is 'Ludicrous'

"It is ludicrous to suggest that 3 million people are doing DIY dentistry," Cockcroft told ABCNews. "Thanks to our investment of over 2 billion pounds [about $2.8 billion] in state dentistry, there are now lots of new dental practices expanding and opening around the country."

The introduction of 655 more dentists in the U.K. last year makes it unnecessarily dangerous to perform do-it-yourself dentistry, according to the government.

Still, the survey does little to reform the stereotype that Britons have teeth like Austin Powers.