Many adults have childhood memories of getting scraped or cut while playing and having a sit down with the brown plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide. A cotton ball, a swipe at the skin and then magic: bubbling, fizzy and crackly sounding chemical reaction as the hydrogen peroxide cleaned out the wound. With that dark brown bottle hiding the actual liquid inside, and its association with the family medicine cabinet, why would anyone consider putting it in his mouth?
Hydrogen peroxide, or H2O2, is a chemical compound that breaks down, or oxidizes, into water and oxygen upon contact with many other natural chemicals. It doesn't actually fizz by itself or when it touches unbroken skin; it's the enzymes in damaged cells and/or blood that causes the foaming action, but the release of oxygen from hydrogen peroxide is what makes H2O2 a very effective cleaner. In addition to cleaning out cuts, it's used as an additive in laundry detergents and for getting stains out of upholstery and carpets, for general household cleaning and for lightening hair. But is it safe for your teeth? Yes and no.
Dental office and store-stocked teeth whiteners contain a compound called carbamide peroxide, which breaks down into hydrogen peroxide and urea -- the hydrogen peroxide becomes a bleaching agent while the urea serves as an acid to break apart stain bonds in the teeth [source: ADA]. Hydrogen peroxide becomes a powerful and effective whitener as it's released through contact with the air, moisture and teeth. Most over-the-counter (OTC) teeth whitening products contain about 10 percent carbamide peroxide while solutions administered or sold through dental professionals can contain from 15 to 35 percent (though the American Dental Association gives its Seal of Approval to the 10 percent H2O2 whiteners only and not those with higher concentrations) [source: ADA].
Whitening products have been around long enough for the ADA and others to perform exhaustive studies and to conclude that it's mostly safe and effective to use peroxide compounds for a brighter smile, but what about that brown bottle peroxide you can get for about a dollar at the drugstore? Will that do, or will it do damage to teeth?
We'll take a look, and maybe a swish, next.
For centuries, people have been swishing and spitting hydrogen peroxide. Though prolonged exposure or high concentrations can cause irritation to the gums, tongue and roof of the mouth, and swallowing can damage the esophagus and internal membranes, using hydrogen peroxide for oral care is actually pretty common [source: OSHA]. Store-bought bottles are usually a 3-percent solution and are safe for oral use. The bottles are brown because H2O2 can weaken or become chemically unstable and ineffective if exposed to sunlight. At 97 percent water, the 3-percent solution will just turn to water over time.
Toothpaste with hydrogen peroxide also is effective. Some people make their own pastes with baking soda and H2O2 combined to increase the whitening and abrasive effect, but these mixtures should be used sparingly and in combination and at intervals as recommended by a dental professional. Too much abrasion can wear enamel and lead to gum irritation, so it's not a good idea to brush with this mixture more than once or twice a week. Store-bought peroxide toothpastes are available with and without baking soda and most are gentle enough for regular use, though some with sensitive teeth or pre-existing gum problems should check with a dentist or hygienist.
As far as adverse reactions to using hydrogen peroxide on teeth, temperature sensitivity and mild gum irritation are the most common issues, and they don't affect everyone [source: ADHA]. Checking with a dental office about how long and often you can use peroxide for specific oral problems or intensive whitening is advisable. Routine cleansing and rinsing are most likely safe, though running it by your dentist is never a bad idea.
So far so good for just over a buck's worth of product. Can hydrogen peroxide do anything else for your mouth? We'll investigate, next.
Although hydrogen peroxide isn't exactly a powerful antiseptic like alcohol or chloride compounds, its strength is in its oxidation. It releases oxygen in a burst that works to debride, or clear debris, very effectively. Toothbrushes can be stored or cleaned in a peroxide solution before and after brushing, and studies have found that peroxide is useful in keeping bacteria counts lower in dental office water lines used for oral rinsing [source: Linger, et al.].
Not only is hydrogen peroxide a proven weapon in the fight against bacteria, it's also been shown to fight gingivitis, or inflamed and bleeding gums. One study published by the National Institutes of Health found that when used as a mouth rinse, H2O2 prevents bacteria buildup and plaque, both contributors to gingivitis [source: Wennström and Lindhe]. This is also great news for bad breath: Better oral health means fresher breath, and the oxidizing action of hydrogen peroxide really enables it to get into the crooks and nooks of teeth, gums and the tongue where bacteria tend to hang out and multiply.
More tips for a healthy mouth follow.
- 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 Hygienist Association (ADHA). "Tooth Whitening Systems." ADHA.org. 2011. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.adha.org/oralhealth/whitening.htm
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Hydrogen Peroxide." Britannica.com. 2011. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/278760/hydrogen-peroxide
- Linger, Jackson B., et al. "Evaluation of a Hydrogen Peroxide Disinfectant for Dental Unit Waterlines." Journal of the American Dental Association. Sept. 1, 2001. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://jada.ada.org/content/132/9/1287.abstract
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). "Occupational Safety and Health Guideline for Hydrogen Peroxide." OSHA.org. 2011. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/healthguidelines/hydrogenperoxide/recognition.html
- Tavares, Mary, et al. "Light Augments Tooth Whitening with Peroxide." Journal of the American Dental Association. Feb. 1, 2003. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://jada.ada.org/content/134/2/167.full
- Wennström, J. and Lindhe, J. "Effect of Hydrogen Peroxide on Developing Plaque and Gingivitis in Man." NIH.gov. April 6, 1979. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/379049