If you’ve long been bothered by a chipped tooth or irregular edges in your teeth, consider asking your dentist for tooth shaping and contouring. During this procedure, your dentist will reshape the existing tooth to improve your smile. “Our goal is to correct minor imperfections like crooked, chipped, cracked or uneven teeth,” says Thomas McKenny, DDS, a dentist in Seattle, Washington. In certain circumstances, this procedure may even replace the need for braces or other teeth straightening procedures.

During this one-hour procedure, the dentist will begin by taking a “before” photo to refer to later. “We perform a complete evaluation of the patient’s teeth and discuss the benefits and risks with the patient,” says Alexander Shor, DMD, a dentist who specializes in prosthodontics in Seattle. “Additional diagnostic tools such as models of the jaw and photographs can also be utilized to help with the evaluation.”

Once this is done, you’ll discuss how long the process will take and how many appointments you should schedule. It’s likely that your dentist will complete the procedure in one session but you may require a follow-up appointment to complete the procedure.

From there, your dentist will get to work on the tooth shaping and contouring procedure. He or she will use a dental drill, diamond and carbide burs, polishing disks, polishing tips and polishing pastes, Dr. Shor says. The goal: To remove small amounts of surface enamel and then smooth and polish the edges of the tooth into a more attractive shape. After that, your dentist will smooth and polish the teeth next to the irregular tooth to further perfect your smile. An “after” photo should show the obvious improvements in your smile and the fact that your teeth look more uniform and less crowded than prior to the procedure.

“We want to improve the appearance and function of the tooth,” says Shor. “Most commonly it’s performed as a cosmetic procedure for the front teeth with less-than-ideal form or alignment.”

The main risk to this procedure is that your dentist may inadvertently remove too much enamel, which would ultimately leave the tooth vulnerable to future tooth decay or breakage. Be sure to seek out an experienced cosmetic dentist to prevent this from happening. You should also make sure you are an appropriate candidate for this procedure. You may be ineligible for tooth shaping and contouring if your enamel is thin, if you’ve had work done on that tooth (or surrounding teeth) before, if your gums are weak or if it will negatively affect your overall bite.

“Tooth reshaping has its limitations,” says Shor. “Large removal of tooth structure can result in tooth sensitivity, make your tooth more susceptible to wear, cavities, alter the bite, and weaken the tooth during function. As a result, when we do tooth shaping and contouring, only a small portion of the tooth is removed. Alternative treatment options such as braces, bonding, veneers and crowns can be utilized in order to improve cosmetics and function for a patient.”

Finally, remember that while tooth shaping and contouring are considered the first steps in improving the overall appearance of your teeth, keep in mind that your dentist may want to combine this procedure with veneers, crowns, teeth whitening and other cosmetic procedures to help you attain the brightest, most beautiful smile possible.