If your smile has lost its sparkle, you may be tempted to use one of the many tooth-whitening kits sold in pharmacies, supermarkets, and on the Internet. These products come in a variety of styles. Some are gels that you either paint on, tooth by tooth, or squirt into a mouth tray (similar to the mouth guards athletes wear), which you then wear, sometimes only at night, for a prescribed period (usually two to four weeks). Similarly, you can purchase dental whitening "strips," which are thin, flexible bands of plastic that adhere to the teeth. You can even find "whitening pens," which have sponge-tips through which you apply the whitening agent.
Many dentists were initially skeptical of at-home whitening systems, but now many of them not only accept such do-it-yourself systems, they dispense them to patients for use at home. Kits for use at home, whether sold at a store or dispensed by a dentist, tend to contain 10 percent carbamide peroxide. The peroxide "bleaches" the teeth to remove surface discolorations as well as many deeper stains; it penetrates the tooth to eliminate stains that have accumulated over the years.
Dentists can perform a similar bleaching in their office, using products that contain higher concentrations of peroxide than are found in over-the-counter versions. Studies suggest that higher concentrations of peroxide do a better job of brightening teeth. What's more, dentists can use lasers and light, which reportedly intensify the peroxide's effects. Plus, while the at-home remedies can take weeks to achieve results, bleaching done in the dentist's office can usually been completed in a single session of about an hour. Then again, the dentists-administered version costs more.
Bottom line: According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association, 96 percent of people who have stains caused by age; tobacco; coffee, tea, or other beverages will notice at least some lightening after using tooth whitening agents/kits. However, these products are less effective on stains caused by medications (such as the antibiotic tetracycline) and fluorosis (the result of overexposure to fluoride). It's worth noting that these products will only work on natural teeth, so they will not whiten caps, crowns, veneers, fillings, or dentures. Also, people who wear braces should not use dental whiteners.
Although the idea of putting peroxide in your mouth just for whiter teeth might seem extreme, these products appear to be safe, with few risks. The American Dental Association has placed its ADA Seal of Acceptance on many such products, which can help guide your selection, but the association does advise patients to try a bleaching product only after consultation with a dentist. Bleaching can cause temperature sensitivity in the teeth. And people who use mouth-tray kits occasionally develop gum irritation. But these problems appear to be short lived. (There have been rare reports of permanent tooth damage from the higher-concentration, dentist-applied whiteners.) If you try an at-home whitening product, follow the instructions and don't apply it more often than recommended; overexposure can damage tooth enamel.
In addition to whitening kits, you can also find many whitening toothpastes. These may help eliminate surface stains, but they can't alter a tooth's color and probably won't produce dramatic changes. And beware of toothpastes that use abrasive ingredients to "scrub away" stains; they may damage teeth.
The best way to whiten your teeth is to make sure they don't get stained in the first place. By dropping a few bad habits and following our home remedies, you can have a glistening white smile.
For more information about whiter teeth and how to achieve them, try the following links:
- To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
- To learn more about keeping your teeth clean, read How Oral Hygiene Works.
- To understand what can go wrong with your teeth, check out How Dental Disease Works.
- To prevent harmful buildup on your teeth, go to Home Remedies for Tartar and Plaque.
- If drinking cold water bothers your teeth, read Home Remedies for Sensitive Teeth.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.