These days tooth whitening is more popular than ever. There are many different kinds of whitening treatments available, from toothpastes to trays to lasers, which can be used at home or at the dentist’s office. Let’s take a look at how whitening actually works and what products might be best for you.

How Tooth Whitening Works

There are actually two ways to whiten your teeth:

  • Bleaching the teeth changes the natural tooth color permanently. Bleaching can be done at home or at the dentist’s office by using tooth whitening products that contain peroxide.

  • Surface whitening products do not contain bleach, but instead work to remove surface stains by physically polishing the teeth or by using special chemicals to remove yellowing or discoloring. These products do not permanently change the tooth color and are used at home.

When done under the supervision of your dentist, bleaching and surface whitening treatments are usually very safe and effective. However if you’re going to use a bleaching product, be sure to consult with your dentist beforehand to make sure you are a good candidate for treatment. 

On rare occasions bleaching can cause tooth sensitivity (especially during the early stages of treatment), gum irritation, and even irreversible tooth damage. This is especially true if you have any fillings, crowns, or unusually dark stains. So make sure to talk to your dentist about the at-home products you are thinking about trying. And also remember that if you are pregnant, you should not bleach your teeth. 

At Home Tooth Whitening Options

At home whitening products come in different forms and can be used to either bleach the teeth or to achieve surface whitening. 

  • Surface whitening is usually done with a whitening toothpaste. These toothpastes are considered safe because they remove stains through gentle polishing, chemical breakdown, or some other non-bleaching action. Some good brands for home use are Colgate, Crest, and Tom’s of Maine.

  • Bleaching treatments are performed using gel and trays, paint-on materials, or bleaching strips. The amount and type of active ingredients may vary from product to product, but acceptable over-the-counter products will contain a concentration of 10 percent bleaching agent. 

At-home bleaching generally occurs slowly over a two to four week period, and whitening toothpastes work even more slowly than that (two to six weeks), so full results will take some time to achieve.

Whitening Treatments at the Dentist’s Office

Bleaching treatments at the dentist’s office use a higher concentration of bleaching agent (from 25 to 40 percent) and the procedure can be completed in about an hour. Sometimes the dentist will use the product in conjunction with a light or laser to activate or accelerate the process. 

Treatments done at the dentist’s office offer faster and more dramatic results, so they are the first choice for patients looking for immediate improvement. The gums are also protected during bleaching with a rubber dam or gel, helping to minimize irritation. 

Can You Whiten Too Much?

The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs has monitored the safety of teeth whitening products for the last two decades. Whitening toothpastes can be used daily with no negative effects on oral health, as long as patients follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for use. 

Bleaching products, however, should be used with caution. While teeth bleaching has been deemed safe and effective by the council, there is not enough research available to determine the effects of long-term or repeated use of bleaching products. So be sure to follow your dentist’s guidelines to avoid permanently damaging your teeth. 

We also advise patients to only purchase whitening products that have the ADA Seal of Acceptance, which has been the gold standard for safety and efficacy for a wide variety of dental products since 1931.

Written by: Dr. Yahya Mansour