The Differences Between Restorative and Cosmetic Dentistry

cosmetic dentistry

There are all kinds of ways we can fix our teeth or improve our smile. But not all are equal. Especially when you consider your bank account. Insurance will cover most procedures that are functionally necessary, but not the ones that are just for looks. Here is a quick overview covering the differences. 

Restorative dentistry is defined as procedures done to restore function. Something that is done to help the patient chew or talk. Cosmetic dentistry uses a lot of the same techniques and procedures but is more focused on the look of the teeth or your smile. 


Fillings are generally restorative. When you get a cavity or tooth decay, it causes holes in the tooth and usually lots of pain. Fillings need to be done just to be able to use your teeth. A variety of materials can be used for fillings. The most common are silver amalgam or a composite. Depending on your dentist, they may do silver fillings in the back of the mouth and use a tooth-colored material that is less noticeable for fillings near the front of your mouth. 


Crowns, also called caps, are used for more serious tooth damage. A crown is essentially a false tooth that is hollow in the middle. They are often custom-made in a dental lab to fit your tooth. A crown fits over and covers the entire tooth. It is cemented in place permanently. Crowns can be used if a cavity caused significant damage. Or, if there isn’t enough tooth left to fill. They are also used to hold cracked teeth together through cosmetic dentistry. Instead of fixing a decayed or cracked tooth, they have used crowns to cover up a misshapen or discolored tooth. Crowns are made from different materials such as:

  • Metal
  • Porcelain-fused metal
  • Resin
  • Ceramic


A bridge is a way to fix a missing tooth or teeth. It is made up of crowns to go over the tooth on each side of the gap that is connected to false teeth that will go in between. A bridge is permanent and may be used for one or several missing teeth. 


Dentures are another option for filling in the gap left by missing teeth.  Unlike other options, dentures are removable. Dentures are a set of false teeth that are worn directly on the gums, sometimes with an adhesive. Dentures are usually used when there aren’t any real teeth left but are sometimes made to go over the top of existing teeth or implants. 


An implant is a metal rod that is inserted into the jaw bone and then topped with a false tooth. This is a permanent fix for missing teeth that works quite well but can be very expensive. 

Inlays & Onlays

Inlay and onlays, often called indirect fillings, are another option for filling in decayed or damaged teeth for restorative purposes or to fix odd shapes and off-colors for cosmetic dentistry. Instead of a pliable substance being molded right into or onto the tooth and shaped that day, measurements and molds are taken and the inlay or onlay is custom made in a dental laboratory. After the inlay or onlay is finished, it is cemented onto the tooth.  An inlay is bonded within the center of the tooth. An onlay is bonded in more than one spot or over the biting surface. Materials they can be made from include:

  • Gold
  • Porcelain
  • Composite Materials

Tooth Whitening

The simplest and least expensive way to improve the look of your smile is simply to whiten the teeth. There are numerous options for at-home or in-office treatments. However, this is a purely cosmetic procedure. 


Sometimes called “Hollywood teeth,” veneers are a thin sheath made of tooth-colored porcelain or resin that is cemented onto the front of teeth. Veneers can be used to change the color, shape, size or length of teeth, and are generally a cosmetic procedure.

Tooth Shaping

Shaping is competed by carefully shaving away parts of the tooth enamel to get rid of oddly shaped teeth. It allows for a more symmetrical smile- a cosmetic technique. 

Tooth Bonding

Bonding is another way to re-shape individual teeth. Instead of shaving away unwanted parts of the tooth, bonding uses a tooth-colored putty that is applied and then hardened with ultra-violet light. Once hardened, the bonding material can be trimmed and shaped and then polished. Bonding can be used to fix decayed, chipped or cracked teeth as well as for cosmetic purposes.  


Orthodontics or braces are used to straighten crooked teeth or spread teeth out to eliminate crowding and gapping of teeth. It works by applying pressure over time to move the teeth. 

There are lots of options for fixing dental problems, whether you need to restore the function of your teeth or are just looking for a nicer smile. Talk to your dentist to find out if your issues are restorative or cosmetic.

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