Home teeth-whitening products are convenient, easy to use, reasonably priced and sold just about everywhere. Media coverage of the rich and famous and their almost neon white, perfectly aligned teeth has been one influence in making people covet whiter and brighter chompers in the 20th and 21st centuries. Wanting white teeth, though, has been a pursuit for thousands of years, and according to the National Museum of Dentistry, even ancient Greeks and early Renaissance Europeans were applying mixtures and chemicals like full-strength bleach to their teeth in hopes of making them whiter, sometimes damaging and losing their teeth in the process [source: Mapes]. Available since about the year 2000, teeth whitening strips deliver a bleaching effect to teeth in a much safer and less painful way than the Renaissance method, but do they damage the teeth?
Whitening strips are actual small pieces of polyethylene, a flexible plastic that molds to the top surfaces, around the edges and into crevices between teeth. Each strip is coated with a gel treatment made from hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide that reacts with moisture in the mouth and breaks down, or oxidizes, getting into the enamel of teeth where stains settle. Part of the oxidization is the peroxide, which acts to whiten, while urea, an acid that comes out during the reaction, acts to break apart some of the stain bonds, allowing the whitening to disperse. Many at-home whitening strips have a solution of up to about 10 percent carbamide peroxide, as well as some flavoring and bonding ingredients [source: ADA].
Studies of the effectiveness of whitening strips show that they do brighten and whiten smiles for most users, and at a cost ranging from less than $10 to about $30 for drugstore whitening strips and mostly well under $100 for strips sold through dental offices, millions of people worldwide are pressing strips on their teeth and lisping through a week or so of half-hour home treatments.
But is all of this too good to be true? Are the whitening strips stripping or damaging teeth? Next we'll look at what happens to a white-stripped mouth.
Whitening: Strips Teeth?
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), both over-the-counter (OTC) and whitening products you buy from the dentist are mostly safe and effective. Some products are even eligible for the ADA Seal of Acceptance. However, the ADA recommends a dental consultation before self-treating in order to avoid exacerbating any existing problems with teeth and gums, or covering up tooth darkening that would help a dental professional in finding potential problems [source: ADA].
In addition, the ADA also acknowledges that whitening agents can cause gum irritation and tooth pain and sensitivity, all of which usually go away when treatment ends and can be relieved with OTC pain relievers or topical numbing gels.
Another consideration before whitening is whether or not your teeth will respond to whitening strips or another method of bleaching. Dentists can look at tooth discoloration and recommend the best whitening method. Gray and brown tinged teeth won't respond as well, and sometimes not at all, to whitening strips, while yellow-stained tooth surfaces likely will improve with bleaching [source: ADA].
One other important consideration is how well consumers follow the application recommendations and instructions when using whitening strips. If applied incorrectly or pushed into the gums, extreme sensitivity and soreness may result. Using the strips too often and for too long also can damage tooth enamel and lead to underlying tissue damage below the gums.
Some dentists report that individuals can overuse whitening products because they like the results so much and keep applying layer after layer hoping for whiter and whiter teeth. When used in excess, however, teeth can become porous and enamel can break down. Just as when people bleach their hair within reason, a lightening effect changes the hair but doesn't make it break and fall out. Using too much bleach and processing for too long, however, will cause millions of stress points in the hair strands, as well as weakening at the scalp -- not to mention dryness and breakage of the hair itself. When tooth-whitening products are overused, the surfaces of teeth and the surrounding gums can be similarly weakened and broken down. Teeth can even become almost translucent rather than white, so heeding the recommendations of a dentist and the instructions for the product is advisable [source: Mapes].
Are there safer or more natural ways to get the whitening without whitening strips? We'll look at some options next.
Whitening: Strip Stains
Good old-fashioned toothpaste and some ingredients in really, really old-fashioned tooth cleaning recipes can help whiten teeth. As one of two categories of whiteners, the first being bleaching methods such as strips, the ADA lists dentifrices, better known as toothpastes. While bleaching whiteners work at getting into the stains and breaking them apart, they don't work for everyone. Toothpastes with whitening chemicals and gentle abrasives can buff away surface stains and polish teeth to a smooth shine. Baking soda has been used for hundreds of years as a tooth cleaner, and when used gently, within a dentist's recommendations, it cleans and whitens effectively.
Some foods are known to be whiteners, and strawberries, though vivid red, actually help in whitening because they contain acids that break down stains. Strawberries and other fruits known for helping to clean teeth, like apples, do also contain sugars, so after eating them or using them to polish tooth surfaces, it's important to brush and remove the sugar and excess acids rather than letting them sit on the teeth where stains can build up.
And while fruits might help remove stains, avoiding or changing habits with stain-causing food and drinks can have a dramatic effect on tooth color. Coffee, tea and wine drinkers can use straws or sip-type cups to keep liquids from washing over teeth surfaces, and adding a regular tooth brushing after each meal and sugary snack will help remove those stain-causing sugars and acids.
Cosmetic dentistry is another option for whitening teeth that don't respond to OTC or other whitening products, and in fact, many of the rich and famous whose teeth inspire the not-so rich and famous to get pearlier whites have their teeth covered in veneers to change their own teeth's shape, texture and color.
Capping and veneering can be very expensive, but some less intensive cosmetic changes also can help. Wearing cool colors and avoiding a lot of yellows and browns close to the lower face, where they can accentuate any yellowing or browning in the teeth is one easy way to give the appearance of whiter teeth. And women can use lipsticks with cooler, blue and purple-based tones instead of orange and flat warm brown tones to make their smiles look whiter rather than more yellow.
Whether eating strawberries or lisping your way through a box of whitening strips, doing anything that increases how much you smile probably has the greatest impact on appearance.
More toothy topics follow on the next page.
- American Dental Association (ADA). "Statement on the Safety and Effectiveness of Tooth Whitening Products." ADA.org. February 2008. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.ada.org/1902.aspx
- American Dental Association (ADA). "Tooth Whitening." ADA.org. 2011 (Aug. 23, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2754.aspx
- American Dental Association (ADA) Council on Scientific Affairs. "Tooth Whitening/Bleaching: Treatment Considerations for Dentists and Their Patients." ADA.org. November 2010. (Aug. 23, 2011) http://www.ada.org/sections/about/pdfs/HOD_whitening_rpt.pdf
- Mapes, Diane. "Blindingly White: Teeth Bleaching Gone Too Far." Jan. 17, 2007. MSNBC.com. (Aug. 23, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15309784/ns/health-oral_health/t/blindingly-white-teeth-bleaching-gone-too-far/
- National Museum of Dentistry. "I Cannot Tell a Lie: George Washington's Teeth." DentalMuseum.org. 2000. (Aug. 23, 2011). http://www.dentalmuseum.org/gw/02teeth.htm