There are currently two flavors of professional teeth whitening treatments: One is an at-home whitening option prescribed by your dentist, and the other is a light-activated whitening option (also called chairside or power whitening) performed by your dentist (or cosmetic dentist or other dental health professional) during an office visit. Both use bleach to whiten teeth.
Hydrogen peroxide is the active ingredient in most bleaching gels, including OTC and professional treatments, although some at-home whitening systems use carbamide peroxide. Carbamide peroxide can be a less effective option because it can take a while to break down into hydrogen peroxide, which means it has to stay on your teeth much longer to work. The whitening gel in at-home kits usually contains between 3 and 10 percent hydrogen peroxide [source: American Dental Association].
Professionally-prescribed at-home whitening options are similar to OTC at-home bleaching kits in that you use a bleaching gel and mouth trays daily for a specific period of time, usually a few weeks to a month. Both types of at-home kits are meant to remove extrinsic tooth stains -- remember, those are stains on the tooth's enamel. The only major difference between the two is how the trays fit in your mouth. While OTC kits have a one-size-fits-all whitening system, your dentist will take impressions of your mouth to give your professional at-home whitening trays a custom fit. Custom-fitted whitening trays not only help to ensure more bleaching gel gets on the surface of your teeth for even whitening, but the fitting also helps to ensure the trays stay put.
For more powerful teeth whitening action you'll need to make an office visit. In-office whitening treatments -- chairside whitening -- use higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, typically between 15 and 38 percent [source: American Dental Association]. But the secret ingredient isn't the high concentration of bleach -- it's light.
During a chairside whitening treatment, a bleaching gel is brushed onto the teeth and a special light, such as a diode laser, light-emitting diode (LED) or plasma arc, is placed in front of your open mouth to activate -- speed up -- the bleaching agent. You can expect two or three whitening sessions during one hour-long chairside treatment, depending on the whitening system and the amount of whitening to be done. No anesthesia is needed for chairside whitening, but temporary tooth sensitivity during and after the treatment is a common complaint.
When it comes to deciding if professional teeth whitening is right for you, it's important to consider your individual whitening needs and wants, along with the effectiveness, safety, and cost of the treatment options.