As someone who wore braces for the better part of my high school career, I have slight PTSD regarding that time in my life.
Thoughts of metal scraping against the insides of my cheeks, nearly choking on wax meant to buffer said scraping but that never actually stayed in place, the constant soreness, the constant cottonmouth, the awkward photos, the food stuck in crevices so deep no floss or pik could possibly intervene, the pointless, grunting small-talk with my orthodontist while wires shot out of my face (“guh huh” is code for “I just made captain of my dance team, thanks for asking”)… and the rubber bands.
By god, the rubber bands! If orthodontics wasn’t ultimately so helpful, I would liken it to what I imagine medieval torture was like.
After making it out alive, I was determined to do whatever it took to never deal with braces again. I had seen a few friends fail to follow “the rules” and wind up back in braces, which was my nightmare come to life. I vowed to never be one of those adults with a mouthful of metal, so I religiously wore my retainers well into my 30s (a very sexy look when you’re trying to date).
But a cross-country move a few years ago proved too much for my little retainers, and somehow they got lost in the shuffle. My orthodontist had long-since retired and life got in the way of me getting replacements, so now I am confronted with crowding on my lower teeth and the sinking feeling that my mom wasted a bunch of money on teenage me. Luckily I have a permanent retainer on my top teeth, so those are still *chef’s kiss.*
With the growing popularity of telehealth, and particularly teledentistry, it is seemingly easier now, more than ever, to achieve a winning smile without all the dramatics of orthodontics of yore. As we live through the COVID-19 pandemic, where social distancing and mask-wearing are crucial to stopping the spread of the virus, there is an urgent need for virtual dentistry. It is now not only annoying to have someone hovering over your gaping mouth for hours at a time, it is potentially dangerous.
Aside from safety, teledentistry also has the added benefit of being more cost-effective, both in monetary terms (low overhead means less for us to pay for) as well as personal time (no more hassle of booking appointments, waiting rooms, commutes, etc.), the latter which is often overlooked.
I decided to research four different aligner companies to see which one would be the best fit for my needs.
My deciding factors were:
- Price: Self-explanatory, but also: What is actually included? Are there different payment plans? Discounts? Do they take insurance? Hidden fees?
- Expertise: Who is actually creating and monitoring my treatment plan? Licensed orthodontists? Cosmetic dentists? A bot?
- Customer Service: Since everything is being conducted remotely, this is monumentally important. I want to know that I can call/text/email/live chat and get assistance whenever I need it.
- Do they offer a night-time treatment option? Not a dealbreaker, but definitely will be given preference if so.
The companies I explored are: Byte, Candid, SmileDirect Club, and Alignerco.
All four follow the same basic concept, whereby you start off with an at-home DIY impression kit that you ship back to them to determine if you are a good candidate for their respective treatment plans, and all offer 100% refunds on these kits if you do not qualify. All use non-toxic, BPA-free clear plastic aligners. You can expect a minimum of 15 weeks of treatment once you receive your aligners, though you should probably bank on longer. And all seem to agree that Invisalign is the worst. Now to get into the nitty gritty of each!
*Spoiler alert: my winning pick is Byte*
First off, they had me at “hello” with their stellar website domain: byteme.com. (Come on!) Once I calmed down from that cuteness overload, my mind turned to finding out if they offered a night-only treatment plan, and they do! It takes a couple months longer and is slightly more expensive, but it is absolutely worth it for me to not feel uncomfortable or inhibited during my productive waking hours. I will gladly take wearing a thicker aligner for 10+ hours per day for 5-6 months while I am (mostly) sleeping, as opposed to daytime aligners which require 22 hours per day for 3-4 months.
But the biggest draw, and what sets them apart from the competition, is Byte’s patented, FDA-cleared HyperByte® technology. Here’s how they explain it on their website:
Hyperbyte uses High Frequency Vibrations (HFV), a vibration-based therapy that uses soft micropulses that transmit through the roots of the teeth to the surrounding bone. Studies have shown, this gentle vibration can reduce discomfort, and help seat your aligners around your teeth better. This causes better aligner traction, more accurate teeth movement, and much faster treatment times. HyperByte® is our very own HFV device that we include free in every treatment plan.
Basically you use this little HyperByte contraption for 5 minutes a day (they do not recommend longer or more frequent use) in conjunction with the clear plastic aligners and it just makes the whole process speedier and more comfortable. They are the only company I researched that offers anything like this. Hyperbyte has been proven to straighten teeth sometimes in half the time of Byte’s competitors, which is another reason why they are #1 on my list.
- $1,895 All-Day treatment / $2,295 All-Night Treatment
- $95 for at-home impression kit, though they are currently offering a huge discount at only $29.95 (not sure how long this promo will last or if this is just a marketing stunt they always do); later in the day, when I was testing out their texting Customer Service, they dropped this price even further to $15.95
You can pay in one lump sum and get all your aligners at once, or opt for $83/month for 29 months, which includes their BPP (Byte Protection Plan that gets you new retainers every 6 months for 5 years + replacement of lost or stolen aligners and retainers). Not sure how necessary the BPP is, but it’s there if you want it.
They also offer Byte Pay, an affordable payment plan, as well as military and student discounts. Some insurance may cover orthodontics, but Byte does not accept payment directly from insurance companies, so you would have to see if you can get reimbursed by your insurance company if you go that route.
Byte is a little pricier compared to some of the others I found, but I think you get a lot more bang for your buck. In addition to the aligners, Byte includes:
- HyperByte® high-frequency vibration device
- BrightByte 3-in-1 whitening foam (might as well whiten your teeth while you wear these aligners all day and night, right?)
- Medical grade retainers
- Byte-for-Life Lifetime Guarantee (if your teeth shift in any way that is not to your liking or according to your personalized treatment plan, they will handle all costs associated with refinements to get you back on track.)
Byte is helmed by Dr. Jon Marashi, cosmetic dentist to the Hollywood stars. We’re talking Tom Hanks, Pink, Halsey, Matt Damon AND Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake AND Jessica Biel…on any given day, his Brentwood office is basically a red carpet. Clearly the man knows a thing or two about making teeth look good and has brought with him his “Smile Science,” which uses a 5-point analysis of aesthetic precision to determine the best tooth placement for your individual face.
Once Byte receives your impressions, you will be matched with a licensed orthodontist in your state who will design a treatment profile tailored to you and only you. They even send you 3-D visualizations of what you will look like “post-Byte.” This is all very fancy and right up my alley. Byte has a network of 200+ orthodontists, cosmetic dentists, dental surgeons, and, on average, these dental professionals have 12 years of expertise with invisible aligners.
Very nice customer service personnel when I called with a whole slew of questions. Unfortunately, they are essentially operating on bank hours (Mon-Fri, 9:00am-5:30pm MT), so it’s not super convenient if you decide Saturday at 2am you have some last-minute questions before you decide if Byte is the aligner company for you.
However, I was told that once you are deemed a candidate, you are assigned your own personal Byte team member who is reachable by text, email, phone, or Facebook messenger (very specific) 7 days a week, which is a bit more helpful. The Byte website’s incredibly detailed FAQs sections answered most of my questions before I even needed to call their customer service line.
Arguably the most thorough and user-friendly website of all the aligner companies I researched. And, while it’s not direct customer service, per se, I really like that they have a whole separate Instagram account devoted to first-hand customer testimonials.
Full disclosure: I did not do a full deep-dive into Candid because I was automatically “disqualified,” for lack of a better term, as a CANDIDidate (had to) on the website’s intro questionnaire because I have a permanent retainer on my top teeth.
I used their live chat to explain that I want to fix my bottom teeth only, but that turned out to be a bot that linked me to unhelpful articles. Then I called their customer service line to explain my issue all over again, whereupon I was informed that aligners would need to be made for both top and bottom teeth so as to safeguard against bite misalignment, and therefore, unless I had my permanent retainer removed, they could not approve me for their service.
I did not run into this issue with any other company, so either Candid is incredibly professional/cautious or the other companies don’t know what they’re doing, I can’t decide…
Also, they don’t offer a nighttime aligner option, so even if I had been a candidate, that automatically disqualifies them for me. (You can’t fire me, Candid…I quit!)
Unrelated: I love that they are partners with Smile Train, an international charity that helps provide 100% free cleft lip and palate treatment to children all over the world.
$2,400 (or $99 per month for 24 months with $399 down), making it the most expensive of all the companies I researched
$95 for at-home impression kit or FREE one-time Candid Studio visit to get started
You can actually see real live humans at any of their 20 nationwide Candid Studios, which have recently begun to re-open. I appreciate that they are being very COVID-safe and outline their health and safety protocols clearly on their website. You can opt to go in and have a free initial consultation or do your at-home impression kit.
Candid’s biggest and most impressive boast is that ALL of the dental professionals they work with are orthodontists, which, I have to admit, is very appealing to me. They are the only company I researched who can claim this. So the same orthodontist who creates your personalized treatment plan is with you every step of the way for remote monitoring.
The lines between orthodontics and cosmetic dentistry are blurred, but there is something to be said for having a full roster of people who specialize in the diagnosis, prevention, and correction of irregular alignments of the teeth and jaws. Straightening teeth and jaw alignment are ultimately medical procedures, even if the outcome you desire is for aesthetic purposes.
As I mentioned above, the Customer Service line was fine (“live chat” was obviously a misnomer), but it appears they also have a Candid App, which seems like it would be helpful if you are an active customer. I did not think downloading it to check it out would make sense in my case.
Feels similar to Candid, in that they offer a COVID-safe in-house option (aptly named SmileShop) to have a free first visit and 3-D scan in lieu of an at-home impression kit, with locations in over 80 cities stateside and Puerto Rico.
A pet peeve right off the bat was that they have so many “deals” going on right now on their website, it’s a bit distracting, and I was bothered by all the “stuff” they’re hocking—various toothbrushes, toothpastes, lip balms, selfie lights—not exactly what I care about or need to see. Please just stick to making my teeth perfect at a reasonable price, that’s what I came here for.
- $1950 (or $89 per month for 24 months, with $250 down); same price for day or night aligners; no credit check,
- $59 for at-home impression kit, though currently offering a “New Year’s Deal” discount of $18 (free after rebate) + free 6-month supply of premium teeth whitening
Unlike Byte, SmileDirectClub will take payment directly from insurance companies, and you just have to pay any difference
Biggest problem: SmileDirectClub is the only company I came across that does not include retainers in their pricing structure. They are available for purchase for $99 which is shady, since wearing retainers is a crucial part of healthy maintenance, not merely an afterthought once treatment is over.
It’s a bit unclear who will actually be mapping out and remotely monitoring your treatment plan, as they say it will be a “state-licensed doctor,” which we know can mean an orthodontist or a dentist, so no real clarification of which one or how that is decided. Maybe that happens once you are a candidate?
But they do tout that 100% of their doctors have 5+ years working with invisible aligners and have straightened over 1 million smiles worldwide. Their FDA-approved facility makes them the largest manufacturer of clear aligners in the U.S. These numbers are impressive, I must say.
SmileDirect might have the best customer service options out of all the companies I reviewed. They have 24/7 live chat for the general public, which I love. But once you are on your SmileJourney, you are given a dedicated care team to oversee your treatment, including your dentist or orthodontist, a registered dental assistant or registered dental hygienist, and a dedicated care team.
This team is available 24/7/365, literally any time, day or night, by phone, email, live chat, and video. That’s right, VIDEO. They have an app where they can remotely zoom in and out on your teeth, take photos (with flash!) and handle your issues in real time. We’re living in the future! I did not see this option anywhere else and it really makes someone like me, who is wary of everything, feel a little better about doing something remotely that will have such a significant impact on my life and how I look.
Not to start off in full Debbie Downer mode, but this is the company that impressed me the least. For one, I was immediately put off by their website. It looks like the ‘90s, when we were all first learning about the internet, full of stock photos and bland, blocky text, very limited FAQs, and just an overall “blah” vibe.
Their social media is more of the same. Nothing feels especially inspiring, nothing gets me excited about starting this dental journey with them. Additionally, I was not able to check my treatment eligibility on the website’s “free assessment” without entering my phone number, which felt icky to me, so I opted to reach out via their live chat (more on that below).
The glaring drawback to Alignerco is that there are seemingly no orthodontists in their company, only general dentists. Unless they are hiding the orthodontic professionals somewhere, that is an automatic and very big NO for me (also more on that below). Additionally, their treatment plan was the longest of all the companies I researched: 6-12 months for Clear Daytime, 8-12 months for NightOnly. Not ideal. They are the cheapest company I reviewed, but you are clearly getting what you pay for.
- $1145 for Daytime Treatment, $1345 for NightOnly Treatment
- $75 for at-home impression kit, though they are currently offering a discount at only $39.99; cost will be deducted if you are a viable candidate
3-Tiered Payment Plans:
*all 3 include impression kit, aligners, and one set of retainers
- SmileAdvantage – $1145 (Day) / $1345 (Night) – one-time payment in full
- SmileFlex – soft credit check; $113 (Day) / $129 (Night) per month for 12 months
- SmileFlex Easy – no credit check; $95 per month for 11 months, with $275 down (Day) / $105 per month for 11 months, with $375 down (Night)
Expertise + Customer Service
Cheers to another 24/7 live chat! With an actual human person, not a bot! And how do I know there was a living, breathing being on the other end? Because there were confusingly long pauses after most of my questions, presumably to look up the answers. It really started to go downhill when I had to keep prodding the agent to tell me if an orthodontist would be monitoring my treatment, or at the very least, creating it.
The agent kept responding in vagaries like, “yes, a dental professional will oversee you,” and explained that an NDA prevents them from revealing doctors’ names (not at all what I was asking for). Then he/she finally linked me to a mysterious part of their website that does not seem accessible unless, I guess, you bug a live chat agent about it, which had the names/photos/bios of their staff (so, what was that about an NDA?), ALL of whom were dentists. Not a single orthodontist.
Not to throw shade at dentists by any means–dental hygiene is supremely important–but it is not orthodontics. If you’re in the business of straightening teeth and aligning jaws (aka medical procedures), you need people who are trained specifically in this field. Period. However, if you happen to be in Long Island, NY, you can visit their clinic and maybe an orthodontist might pop up there, but don’t hold your breath.
My Final Thoughts
In the end, no company had every single thing I was looking for, but each had their good (and not-so-good) points. But to me, Byte came the closest to meeting my needs.
I was sucked in by the promise of HyperByte, their enticing marketing and social media, glowing customer reviews, shorter treatment timeline…and maybe a little by the glitz and glamour of those celebrity clients.