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HOUSTON, Texas: The self-proclaimed democratiser of orthodontic care, SmileDirectClub (SDC) has abruptly shuttered its global business after less than ten years of operations. The Tennessee clear aligner company announced in December that it had failed to secure a financial lifeline in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and that it would consequently liquidate and end all services with immediate effect. According to media reports, the closure came as a surprise to thousands of SDC customers who were in various stages of orthodontic care and who must now consult a local dentist to continue their treatment.
Typically a patchwork of reviews, endorsements and promises of easy and cost-effective clear aligner therapy, SDC’s website on 8 December was reduced to a landing page featuring a short statement and a few brief FAQs. The company had “made the incredibly difficult decision” to end its operations, the statement read, explaining that customer care was no longer available. Recent orders would not be fulfilled, the company’s Lifetime Smile Guarantee was now void and any questions about ongoing treatment would need to be directed at local dentists, the FAQs explained. For those seeking a refund, the company said that the ongoing bankruptcy process would determine the next steps.
SDC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US on 29 September, remaining in control of its business operations while seeking capital reorganisation under the oversight of the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas. At the time of the filing, SDC owed creditors nearly US$900 million (€854 million) and had just US$5 million in cash, despite having been valued at close to US$9 billion when the company went public in 2019. Lawyers acting for the company told UK magazine Dentistry in October that the bankruptcy filing only affected its US business and that its UK and “other international affiliated entities have not sought any bankruptcy protection”.
“Too good to be true”
Despite being laden with debt, SDC continued to ship thousands of clear aligner cases to customers in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the US and the UK throughout 2023, and reports suggest that it continued to advertise and sell treatment even into the final throes of its global business. Public information shows that the company shipped 106,419 unique clear aligner orders in the first half of last year, and The Guardian highlighted the plights of US consumers who responded to SDC promotions as late as November. Kat Fernandez of Texas told the newspaper that she received an offer for SDC aligners that was “too good to be true” and paid in full for the treatment on 3 November. “It infuriates me to know that they were aggressively pursuing [customers] so close to when they were going to pull out. I feel scammed and conned,” Fernandez said.
“The closure of SmileDirectClub has created an upsetting situation for many patients who were undergoing dental treatments”—Dr Nigel Carter, Oral Health Foundation
Rebekka Reynolds of Oklahoma, who paid in full for her treatment in October, told the newspaper that she received news about the closure via social media and not from SDC. “I found out because a bunch of my TikTok followers started tagging me in videos, asking me what I was going to do. Then I looked it up and found out. That kind of blows my mind,” Reynolds said.
In December, the UK’s Oral Health Foundation voiced its concern about the ongoing orthodontic care of SDC patients. Dr Nigel Carter, OBE, chief executive of the foundation, said: “The closure of SmileDirectClub has created an upsetting situation for many patients who were undergoing dental treatments. We are extremely worried about what impact this will have on the oral health and mental well-being of thousands of people currently undergoing treatment.”
“It all leaves a very bitter taste,” Dr Carter said, adding: “Patients have been left in the lurch and it will now no doubt fall on orthodontists to rescue the situation for those SmileDirectClub customers who remain unhappy with their smile.”
Founded in 2014, SDC was on a strong upward trajectory in 2019 when it went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange and installed 49 HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers at a new manufacturing facility. Running non-stop, the printers enabled SDC to produce 20 million clear aligner trays annually and made the company the largest user of this 3D-printing technology in the US. Prior to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—which hit the company particularly hard, owing to its disproportionate financial impact on its target market—SDC was a major employer in Tennessee and other US states and had a global headcount of 6,300 staff.