The Truth about Teeth Whiteners

Nothing lights up your face like a beautiful smile, so it's not surprising that people spend so much time and money whitening their teeth. According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dental Surgery, 96 percent of Americans think that an attractive smile is important for attracting the opposite sex, and 74 percent feel an ugly smile can hinder career advancement.

Why Your Teeth Get Discolored

Teeth develop intrinsic stains from trauma, excess fluoride, and mineral exposure. Until recently, treatments for these were near impossible. More common extrinsic stains from food and beverages, tobacco, and age are easier to treat. The degree of staining varies depending on peoples' habits and natural tooth thinness and translucency. As we get older, tooth enamel wears down and micro-cracks form in teeth allowing outside elements to penetrate and yellow dentin to shine through. Extrinsic stains start superficially but sink into teeth's dentin over time, becoming harder to remove. This is why younger people may require less maintenance and find more success with teeth whitening procedures.

Whitening vs. Bleaching

A whitening product is designed to restore teeth's natural color by removing debris while the stronger bleaching product contains hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide which can whiten them beyond their original color. Because "bleaching" can sound scary, manufacturers use the term "whitening," even though most in-office and at-home treatments are technically bleaching.

Whitening/Bleaching Options

  • In-Office Bleaching. A guard or protective gel is applied to gums and before the bleaching product is applied to teeth. Light or lasers may be used to stimulate the bleaching agent. May require multiple office visits and tends to be the most expensive option.

  • Dentist Dispensed Take-Home Treatments. A custom-fitted tray is designed for patients to fill and wear while sleeping or for a few hours a day over 1-2 weeks. Often more cost-effective than in-office treatments and the custom-fit tray irritates gums less than over-the-counter options. The peroxide concentration is lower than that in the in-office treatments.

  • Drugstore Whitening Kits. These include a mouth tray and lower concentration of peroxide gel, or whitening strips or paint-on applicators. The tray-style yields a better result than the paint-on or strip types.

  • Whitening Toothpastes. These do not contain bleaching agents, but have polishing agents that are stronger at removing stain than regular toothpastes.

Side Effects of Teeth Whitening

Though generally safe, particularly in the low-peroxide over the counter variety, there are a few side effects that you should be aware of:

  • Increased sensitivity to touch, pressure, and temperature. The high-concentration in-office treatments can cause shooting pains for 24-48 hours especially if you have cracked teeth, receding gums, or red hair. Toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth can help ease discomfort.

  • Gum irritation is very common, especially for people who don't use a custom-fit mouthpiece.

  • "Technicolor Teeth" can occur in people with veneers, crowns, or bonded teeth, when the artificial substances don't bleach along with natural teeth. People with yellowed recessed gums also may find a discoloration issue because those areas are difficult to bleach.

Women who are pregnant or nursing should NOT attempt teeth whitening or bleaching - we don't know the impact of even a tiny amount of swallowed bleach to a fetus or baby.

Buyer Beware

Internet ads for teeth whitening systems abound, but the Better Business Bureau warns that hundreds of people have issued complaints about getting tricked into long-term contracts with companies selling whitening products. If you're going to sign up for an online option, read the fine print and beware of 3rd-party endorsements.

Start with Your Dentist

Even if you're not going to go with an in-office procedure, talk to your dentist about a choice that fits your goals and budget. And if you do choose a dentist-supervised procedure, be sure to discuss how white you want to go. People with a yellow-brown natural tooth color tend to see better results from bleaching than people with green-gray teeth. And remember that while most treatments will have some effect, none of them will yield permanent results. In order to preserve the results of your teeth whitening as long as possible, you should drink dark beverages through a straw, avoid smoking, and maintain good oral hygiene like regular brushing and flossing, and to avoid staining agents like wine, coffee, tea, orange juice, and beets for at least a week after whitening.




American Dentistry Association

American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery

Your Dentistry Guide

Better Business Bureau