How It Works, Types, and Side Effects6 min read
Teeth whitening refers to a variety of processes that aim to make someone’s natural teeth appear brighter and whiter. Teeth whitening methods include sanding down stains, bleaching, ultraviolet (UV) light therapy, and more.
Many different teeth whitening products are available, and you can try many approaches at home. You can also get your teeth whitened at your dentist’s office.
Some teeth whitening methods can cause uncomfortable side effects, particularly tooth sensitivity and gum irritation. Let’s take a look at how teeth whitening works, how to do it safely, and what you should know about its side effects.
To whiten your teeth effectively, you’ll need to choose a whitening method that addresses the type of staining you have. If you have both intrinsic and extrinsic staining (explained below), you’ll likely need to choose a whitening method that safely addresses each type.
If you aren’t sure which kind of staining you have, consider consulting your dentist. They can advise you on the type of stains on your teeth and which method might work best.
Stains that are inside your tooth enamel are called intrinsic stains. Intrinsic staining is sometimes present even before your teeth erupt from your gums when you’re a kid.
These stains can result from antibiotic use, high levels of fluoride exposure, and your tooth enamel growing thinner as you age. Intrinsic staining can sometimes even be genetic, according to
Extrinsic stains are on the outside of your tooth. These happen due to environmental exposure to things that leave discoloration on your tooth enamel. Coffee, artificial food colorings, and smoking can all cause this type of staining.
Like intrinsic stains, extrinsic stains can also be linked to antibiotic use, based on the 2014 research above.
Teeth whitening options range from toothpaste with whitening ingredients to professional teeth whitening sessions overseen by your dentist.
Some whitening products aim to actually remove extrinsic stains from your teeth, while others simply bleach intrinsic and extrinsic stains so that they appear lighter in color.
Many over-the-counter (OTC) and in-office treatment options use hydrogen peroxide to break down and minimize stains on your teeth. Carbamide peroxide, another oxidizing ingredient, is also often used.
These chemicals can be aggressive and irritating to your body in higher doses. That’s why it’s extra important that you use teeth whitening products as directed.
Talk with your dentist about any sensitivity you may experience after using whitening treatments at home or when receiving them at the dentist’s office. If a product causes tooth pain or redness or bleeding in your gums, stop using it and consult your dentist.
OTC whitening products include whitening toothpaste and mouthwash.
These products may contain baking soda, which works as a mild abrasive to scrub stains away. Some whitening toothpaste also contains charcoal, which also has abrasive properties. Whitening formulas also may contain low concentrations of carbamide and hydrogen peroxide.
Some abrasives can damage your tooth enamel if used too often or in the long term.
Enamel is your teeth’s hard exterior. Unlike other parts of a tooth, the enamel is not made of living cells, so it doesn’t repair itself once it has worn away, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Consult your dentist on how to use abrasive whitening products safely.
Whitening products also usually contain fluoride to strengthen tooth enamel and prevent future stains.
Home whitening kits
Home whitening kits may take the form of a gel or paste that is applied to your teeth using a brush or in the form of sticky strips.
Some home whitening kits involve covering your teeth with a whitening agent before placing a mouthguard on your teeth. Certain at-home kits have a heat lamp, blue light, or UV light within the mouthguard to “radiate” the whitening paste. However, a small
A mouth guard can keep the bleaching agent on your teeth to increase its absorption and limit how much of the whitening solution comes in contact with your gyms. The ADA has approved gel with 10 percent carbamide for at-home use in overnight mouth guards, according to
The active ingredients in whitening kits approved by home use are at a lower concentration than you would find in a dentist’s office. For that reason, you will need to use the kit every day for several weeks to see visible results. Most at-home whitening kits advertise results within 2 to 4 weeks.
Whitening at dentist’s office
Tooth whitening at the dentist’s office uses higher concentrations of active ingredients to achieve visible results more quickly.
In-office teeth whitening may require several sessions in order for you to get your teeth as white as you would like, according to
Power bleaching at the dentist’s office involves rinsing your teeth with a powerful hydrogen peroxide solution for 20 to 30 minutes. Laser therapy is sometimes included in in-office tooth whitening sessions, though there is currently no strong research proving that this has any particular whitening benefit.
The most common side effect of teeth whitening is temporary tooth sensitivity. Mouth and gum irritation is also common. Hydrogen peroxide especially can cause this reaction.
When you get your teeth whitened at the dentist’s office, your gum tissue will be protected during the treatment to reduce this side effect.
You may also experience increased tooth sensitivity after whitening with an at-home kit or at the dentist’s office. Tooth sensitivity can occur when consuming particularly hot or cold food and drinks. It can also feel like a sharp pain in your tooth, sometimes out of nowhere. This sensitivity should be temporary.
Getting your teeth whitened repeatedly or using tooth whitening kits for longer than the recommended duration can result in permanent damage to your tooth enamel,
Depictions of pearly white teeth on TV or in magazines have made it seem like a spotless, perfect smile is the norm. But no matter what your teeth look like, there’s no reason to ever be ashamed of your smile. You should prioritize the health of your teeth above cosmetic appearances.
Tooth yellowing can occur due to:
Access to teeth whitening treatment may also depend on your budget. Whitening products and in-office treatments are not covered by insurance. Some people may choose options that have a milder whitening effect but are more affordable, like toothpastes and mouthwashes.
People who have dental implants or veneers are not candidates for teeth whitening. Teeth whitening works on natural teeth only. Many younger people in recent years have pursued veneers to achieve a perfectly white smile, but this can be dangerous for your teeth’s health in the long run.
If you are self-conscious about your smile because of teeth yellowing and you have your natural teeth, you might want to try teeth whitening methods. But ultimately this is a personal aesthetic choice and not a medical necessity.
Consult with your dentist about what whitening options may be best for you. Always read directions on home kits and use products as directed.
It’s important to note that people with dental implants, veneers, crowns, or bridges might not be candidates for teeth whitening, depending on the location of this dental work. If it is in the back of the mouth, a person may still receive whitening. If is in the front of the mouth, whitening is not recommended.
Teeth whitening includes various cosmetic treatments to create a brighter smile. Some can be done at home via whitening kits or products, while others can be done at your dentist’s office. Whitening treatments are usually not covered by health insurance.
Some chemicals used in teeth whitening can cause tooth sensitivity and gum irritation. It’s important to always use products as directed.
If you have mild tooth staining, consider adding a whitening toothpaste or mouthwash to your oral care routine. It may also help to avoid foods or liquids that are known to stain your teeth, including wine and coffee. If staining is more noticeable, you may want to try an at-home whitening kit or talk with your dentist about in-office whitening sessions.
Regardless of what you decide, there’s no reason to be ashamed of your smile. The most important thing is that your teeth are healthy and functional. While many people find tooth whitening increases self-confidence, it’s important we reduce the stigma surrounding the wide, natural diversity of smiles.