How to Whiten Your Teeth

Having a “movie star smile” is somewhat of an American obsession. Consumers spent over 1.4 billion dollars on over-the-counter products to whiten their teeth last year, and that does not include the amounts spent by people who have their teeth professionally whitened by their dentists. Clearly, there is a huge public interest in having a brighter, whiter smile.

Why don’t my teeth stay white on their own?

Many factors lead to teeth becoming discoloring over time, including aging, disease, medications, or becoming stained as a result of cigarettes, coffee, tea, or cola drinks. When we eat, drink, or smoke, a layer of film builds up on the tooth enamel, and much of it persists even after brushing. This can erode the enamel, and over time the more dark-tinted dentin layer begins to show through, giving the teeth a yellowish tint.

This is a natural part of aging, and there is no established dental standard for “how white” your teeth “should” be. But there are societal standards, and when people constantly see photos of models and movie stars with perfectly white teeth, naturally they want the same “look” themselves. In general, whitening techniques can be divided into two main categories – at-home, do-it-yourself treatments, and professional treatments performed in a dentist’s office.

Over-the-counter treatments for whitening teeth

Although the American Dental Association recommends checking with your dentist before using any whitening method, many people turn first to the amazing array of products available at their local pharmacies. The simplest and least expensive are toothpastes and gums that contain small amounts of a bleaching agent to slowly whiten teeth over time.

Other over-the-counter bleaching methods usually involve slightly larger concentrations of the bleaching gel, often in strips that are applied directly to the teeth and left on at night or (in the case of transparent strips) during the day. Slightly larger concentrations of the bleaching agent (which is usually carbamide peroxide) are used in methods that require you to wear a mouthpiece or tray to hold the gel in place. These methods do work to lighten the color of teeth, but require an investment of time – several hours a day, for 14 days to a month.

In-office dental treatments to whiten teeth

Dentists offer treatments that are generally more expensive, but require less investment of your time to achieve the desired results. In many cases, the treatment can be completed in one or two visits, and is painless, requiring no anesthetic to produce immediate results. The most common types of in-office professional teeth whitening are:

• Simple bleaching – In this process, higher concentrations of the bleaching agent or gel than can be sold in pharmacies are applied by the dentist in the office. The bleaches themselves are usually peroxide-based, safe, and cause changes in the color of your tooth enamel gradually. Often the dentist may supplement the in-office treatment by fitting the patient for a custom mouthpiece or tray, into which they put a measured amount of the bleaching material, and then wear it at home at night.

• Light-amplified bleaching – This process is similarly based on bleaching agents, but after applying the gel the dentist then “activates” it by exposing the teeth to light or heat, which causes a chemical reaction that makes it work faster. This method of whitening usually requires only a single visit to the dentist.

• Laser whitening – This method is similar to light-amplified bleaching, but uses a specialized dental laser to activate the crystals in the whitening gel. This causes it to more quickly and deeply penetrate the tooth enamel. This method also usually requires only one visit.

Are there risks to whitening your teeth?

In general, risks are few, whether from the over-the-counter products or those applied in a dentist’s office. Some patients have reactions to the bleaching agents and whitening gels, which can cause a burning sensation in the gums and other soft tissues of the mouth. Sometimes the treated teeth become more sensitive to heat and cold. This is especially true as the result of overuse of home bleaching treatments, which when abused can result in erosion of the tooth enamel. As stated earlier, the best way to avoid any side effects is to consult with your dentist before trying any whitening method.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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