Published: 03/22/2024
teeth whitening
Photo by Daniel Xavier

There are numerous reasons people choose teeth whitening: for the aesthetic appeal, to boost confidence, to change how others perceive them, to counteract habits that stain teeth, to turn back the clock, for special occasions (like a wedding, graduation, or job interview), and so much more.

If you’re interested in teeth whitening, you’re far from alone. More than 1 million Americans choose to whiten their teeth every year, making it the top cosmetic procedure requested for people between the ages of 20 and 50.

Teeth whitening isn’t just about how you look. Yes, it’s a cosmetic procedure, but having a clean, healthy, attractive smile can often motivate people to better care for their teeth. And better oral hygiene practices can then improve overall dental health.

In addition, enhancing your smile may provide a mental boost. For instance, it may help reduce anxiety about your appearance, which may also improve happiness.

How Does Teeth Whitening Work?

Teeth whitening works by breaking down stains on the surface of the teeth. This process makes the teeth appear whiter and brighter. There are two main whitening methods: bleaching and non-bleaching. Each method targets tooth discoloration in different ways:

  • Bleaching products contain peroxides (such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide). These ingredients remove both deep-level and surface stains. They may also slightly alter the natural color of the teeth.

    For example, peroxide penetrates the porous outer layer of the tooth (i.e., the enamel) to lighten the discoloration inside the tooth (in the dentin). This triggers an oxidation reaction, breaking the bonds that hold the discolored molecules together. As these bonds break down, the teeth appear whiter. The whitening isn’t just surface level. It affects the deeper layers of the tooth, so the color change is often more significant.
  • Non-bleaching methods typically use a physical or chemical action to remove only the surface stains. These methods include whitening toothpastes, brushes, and some over-the-counter treatments. They primarily work by scrubbing away surface stains from the enamel with mild abrasives. They may also polish the teeth, which may help them appear brighter by removing surface stains. Other products contain chemicals that break down or dissolve surface stains. However, while these products lighten the teeth, they don’t change the intrinsic color of the teeth.

Teeth Whitening Considerations

Before choosing to whiten your teeth, there are some important considerations. Some people, for instance, find they have greater tooth sensitivity or gum irritation from whitening agents, especially when using bleaching products. While this sensitivity is typically temporary, it can be uncomfortable.

How effective the whitening is depends on the discoloration. For example, yellowish teeth usually respond better to whitening than brownish or grayish-looking teeth. In addition, whitening treatments may affect restorations like crowns, veneers, or fillings differently.

If you’re seeking the most significant changes to your smile, professional whitening performed by your dental team, which has access to stronger bleaching agents, typically provides faster and more significant results than at-home products. If you are looking for a more convenient and cost-effective method to brighten your smile over time, you may prefer an at-home option.

Speaking with your dental professional before starting any whitening treatment can help ensure you’re not only getting the results you’re looking for but also help ensure the products are safe for your teeth and gums.

Whitening Products

A stroll through the dental aisle at your local drug or grocery store can show you the wide range of applications, products, and costs. You can find whitening toothpastes, gels, strips, and more. All come with benefits and drawbacks.

  • Whitening Toothpastes usually contain mild abrasives and chemical agents designed to remove surface stains. They may also contain low levels of peroxide, though they typically don’t contain enough to change the color of the teeth. They’re super easy to use—just brush twice daily as you do with regular toothpaste. This option is also the least expensive.
  • Whitening gels are a clear, peroxide-based product that’s applied directly to the surface of the teeth using a small brush. Some products are used daily for a certain number of days. Because they contain bleaching agents, they can whiten the teeth more significantly. While more costly than toothpaste, they’re less expensive than professional treatments. However, prices and effectiveness vary dramatically depending on the brand, the bleaching agent, the concentration, and the application.
  • Whitening Strips are thin, flexible plastic strips coated with a peroxide-based whitening gel. The strips are applied to the front teeth and left in place for a certain amount of time (often 30 minutes a day) for a few days or weeks. Depending on the peroxide concentration, these are generally more effective than toothpastes and can be as effective as gel products. They also can whiten the teeth by removing surface and deeper stains. Costs again vary, but they’re usually higher than toothpastes and less than professional treatments.
  • Professional Dental Whitening uses high-concentration peroxide gels, which are often activated using a special light, heat, or laser. The procedure is performed at the dentist’s office. Depending on the recommended process, the dentist may take measures to protect the gums and mouth from the bleaching agents. Sessions may last 30 minutes to over an hour, and you may need multiple sessions to achieve desired results. While these procedures are the most effective for removing surface and deep-level stains, with noticeable results after a single session, it’s also the most expensive option.

Each whitening option has advantages, depending on your needs and expectations. While over-the-counter products are more accessible and cost-effective, professional whitening offers faster and more dramatic results.

Many people find teeth whitening to be an effective way to improve the look of their teeth for a healthier, more vibrant smile that helps them feel more confident. Before you choose which method is right for you, you may want to consult your dental team, which can provide personalized advice based on your dental health and whitening goals.

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