There are two common ways to go about making one's teeth look whiter. The first option involves eliminating stains that develop on top of a tooth's enamel by scrubbing them with a whitening toothpaste. The second method is to fade any discoloration below the tooth's surface with a bleaching agent [source: American Dental Association].
The first method relies on gently polishing the teeth to remove discoloration on top of the enamel, and this is usually done with your toothbrush and toothpaste. All toothpastes help reduce the stains that accumulate on the surface of teeth since they act as mild abrasives. But, there are also toothpastes that specifically include whitening agents. These sorts of dentifrices do not change the fundamental color of teeth since they don't include bleach.
Bleaching is a chemical process that oxidizes a tooth's stains by seeping into the tooth and breaking apart the stains. The active ingredients are either carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide in a sticky clear gel that can be squeezed into a mouth guard or used as gel-coated plastic strips [source: American Dental Association]. The concentration commonly ranges from 10 to 20 percent, although the products that have a carbamide peroxide concentration of 10 percent or higher may also contain fluoride to offset the likelihood of teeth and gum sensitivity -- the primary complaint people have while using whiteners [source: WebMD]. As we've heard for many years, fluoride can help strengthen teeth. If tooth or gum irritation does occur, it may be best to stop using the product every day and try alternating days instead. Either way, tooth or gum irritation is usually temporary.
In the end, it's always best to visit your dentist before trying any of these at-home whitening procedures to make sure it's the right decision. Not everyone should bleach their teeth. Some reasons to avoid at-home whitening include having crowns (they don't bleach), if you're pregnant or nursing (why risk ingesting the chemicals?) or if you finished using a kit within the last few weeks. For best results and safety, these products are only meant to be used once or twice a year [source: WebMD]. Also, look for products that have the ADA Seal of Acceptance.
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- American Dental Association. "Oral Health Topics: Tooth Whitening." 1995-2011. (Sept. 1, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2754.aspx
- American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs. "Tooth Whitening/Bleaching: Treatment Considerations for Dentists and Their Patients." September 2009. (Sept. 1, 2011) http://www.ada.org/sections/about/pdfs/HOD_whitening_rpt.pdf
- American Dental Hygienists' Association. "Tooth Whitening Systems." 2011. (Sept. 3, 2011) http://www.adha.org/oralhealth/whitening.htm
- Dental Health Online. "Tooth Whitening." 2011. (Sept. 1, 2011) http://dentalhealthonline.net/cosmetic_tooth_whitening.html
- WebMD. "The Truth About Health Teeth: Your Guide to at-Home Dental Care." July 9, 2010. (Sept. 2, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/healthy-teeth-10/teeth-whitening-safety
- WebMD. "Tooth Enamel Erosion and Restoration." Feb. 6, 2009. (Sept. 3, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/tooth-enamel-erosion-restoration