Teeth Whitening: A Guide to Types, Costs, Risks, and More
Teeth whitening is the use of bleaching or abrasive materials to lighten the shade of discolored teeth. There are several types of at-home whitening applications, including toothpastes, strips, gels, mouthwashes – even old-fashioned baking soda. For more professional results there are in-office procedures performed by your dentist. Regardless of which method you choose, the American Dental Association recommends seeing a certified dentist before starting.
Several factors can cause teeth to lose their natural whiteness. Common culprits include:
- Certain foods and drinks (such as coffee and tea, of course, but also things like blueberries and soy sauce)
- Tobacco use
- Poor brushing and flossing habits
- Certain medications, such as antibiotics
- Injury to teeth
- Excessive fluoride intake
(Find out more about the causes of teeth discoloration.)
Along with the eyes, the teeth are the most striking elements of the face. When people look at you, their vision is drawn toward your teeth and mouth. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they will form opinions about you based on the straightness and whiteness of your teeth. These opinions are important in dating, at the workplace, and for self-esteem. In short, whiter teeth can lead -- even if in a small way -- to a happier and more successful life.
Treatments to whiten teeth can be broken down into three general categories: over-the-counter products, in-office whitening by a dentist, and dentist-prescribed take-home trays. Frequently, the price of your in-office professional treatment will include take-home trays.
- Whitening strips
- Baking soda
- Chewing gums
- Peroxide-containing mouthwash
Over-the-counter options are cheaper than in-office procedures, but will be far less effective. Note that generic over-the-counter teeth whitening applications have not been shown to be inferior to name-brand products. Please note that the ADA "recommends that if you choose to use a bleaching product you should only do so after consultation with a dentist."
Take-home applications prescribed by a dentist:
You have the option of reqesting that your dentist simply prescribe a set of take-home trays and gels. You wear these for between 2 and 5 hours a day for up to several weeks. Most dentists, however, recommend a professional, in-office bleaching, and then supplemental use of trays over the weeks following your bleaching. You will not need to wear the take-home trays as long if they are used following an in-office bleaching.
The most common in-office technique, done by a dentist, is the application of a gel containing professional-grade carbamide or hydrogen peroxide. The strength of the peroxide will range from 15 to 30 percent. Your dentist may also advise the use of a high-intensity light to accelerate the whitening process of the gel. The entire process is usually completed within an hour. See below for a step-by-step guide through the process.
Different dentists have different workflows when performing a whitening procedure. A comprehensive step-by-step approach to the in-office teeth whitening will look something like this:
The dentist or dental assistant will:
- Note the shade of your teeth before any changes are made
- Get approval from you regarding the desired new shade
- Stretch and hold your lips away from your teeth using a cheek retractor
- Apply a rubber dental dam to shield the gums
- Wash and dry the exterior of the teeth
- Paste on the whitening ingredient (a type of peroxide)
- Shine a safe but high-energy light onto the teeth (optional)
- Thoroughly wash the teeth
- Repeat the above steps if further whitening is necessary
- Compare your new shade to the shade agreed upon before the procedure
Take a look at our in-depth cost breakdown of all teeth-whitening methods. This section also provides guidance on financing your treatment.
Teeth whitening is normally a safe and effective procedure. But your dentist should confirm that your teeth discoloration is not the result of a serious or systemic disorder, such as trauma, infection or root decay. Patients with intense sensitivity, dental restorations, or extremely dark stains should also be examined closely before undergoing teeth whitening.
The most common side effects of teeth whitening are mild: temporary tooth sensitivity, and, less commonly, irritation of the gums surrounding the treated teeth.
Other, less common risks include:
- Over-whitening (over-bleaching): resulting in a fake or excessively cosmetic appearance
- Chemical burns: irritation of the gums and skin inside the mouth
- Temporary increased sensitivity to hot or cold items
Taking care of your teeth after whitening is important for several reason. The main one is that your prior tooth discoloration may have been the result of poor oral hygiene; therefore, it would be medically advisable to "step up" your level of dental care. (Remember also that when you look in the mirror after your cleaning and see rows of pearly white teeth, this does not mean your teeth are in perfect shape and need no continued care.)
The second argument for post-whitening dental care is that the better you tend to your teeth, the whiter they will remain -- and the less you will need to pay in the future to have them re-whitened.
The bottom line is this: practice top-notch oral hygiene. Take care of your teeth -- they are the only permanent, natural set you will ever have!
Use our handy Dentist Finder to find a reputable dentist in your area.
Read our Expert Interview on Teeth Whitening.
American Dental Association, “Tooth Whitening/Bleaching: Treatment Considerations for Dentists and Their Patients,” http://www.ada.org/sections/about/pdfs/HOD_whitening_rpt.pdf.
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