Over the past decade, we have improved high definition cameras, TV, and other imagery, which partially caused a major spike in the desire for incredibly white teeth among Americans. Movie and TV stars, news anchors, and anyone in the public eye has achieved a blindingly white smile that has become the goal for the average person watching them at home. With this sudden increase in interest, there has also been an incredible surge in the number of products that have popped up on the market to help whiten your teeth at home. It’s a good idea to know what you’re buying when you’re on a mission to get that impossibly white smile you so desire.
It’s important to be aware of the do’s and don’ts of whitening, how to recognize a scam product, how to safely achieve your best level of white and the best methods to use to whiten your teeth.
What causes discoloration?
There are many ways in which teeth become discolored, some that can be fixed with whitening treatments; others cannot.
Aging: Discoloration is a natural part of aging, as the inner part of the tooth, called dentin, begins to yellow while enamel slowly wears down.
Genetics: Your parents’ teeth also play a major role in tooth color, often aligning with dental characteristics like tooth and jaw alignment.
Antibiotics: Taking tetracycline, a common antibiotic before the age of 10 can turn teeth yellowish as a side-effect. This is more common with prolonged or frequent use.
Damage: Teeth that have endured trauma or are broken at the root tend to turn grey after about a week or two and need to be treated with root canals and potentially crowns, depending on the damage incurred.
Fluorosis: When teeth are treated with too much fluoride they can experience discoloration. This occurs more often in children than adults.
Staining: Heavy coffee and tea consumption, as well as smoking, can cause superficial staining of the tooth enamel, often turning it yellowish brown.
Two kinds of whitening
Extrinsic: If your tooth enamel is stained, it means that just the outside of your tooth needs whitening. The best way to avoid this kind of staining is to stay away from coffee, red wine, tea, and smoking. The best way to whiten teeth extrinsically is to have a professional teeth cleaning done by your dentist and dentist-approved whitening treatment.
Intrinsic: The inner part of your tooth can be whitened with hydrogen peroxide gel to become lighter. When that is done, the whiter color is reflected through the enamel like a prism, making them look brighter. Many people do not realize that “bleaching” teeth is absorbing the peroxide into the inner tooth, not the outer surface.
You should speak with your dentist before you embark on any teeth-whitening efforts because of the risks involved, especially if you are doing DIY or at-home treatments.
Tooth sensitivity: Because whitening affects the inner pulp of the teeth, otherwise called the dentin, it’s very important to consider the inflammatory response many people deal with when doing whitening treatments. Tooth sensitivity is the most common complaint upon whitening, but many also reported that within a week of their whitening treatment, the pain and sensitivity dissipated.
Gum irritation: Bleaching systems can seep out onto your gums and essentially damage them with use. This happens most frequently when ill-fitting strips and generic teeth trays are used. While this won’t cause any permanent damage, it can be slightly irritating or painful. Once the skin off your damaged gum sloughs off, a new healthy layer will grow and replace it.
Enamel loss: Since enamel cannot regenerate, any loss of enamel is to be taken seriously. High concentrations of bleaching agents cause more significant weakening, more so when lighting systems are used along with hydrogen peroxide. However, bleaching more so causes a ‘weakening’ of the enamel rather than a full loss. This weakness lasts about a week until it is re-mineralized. If too much bleaching is done over time, enamel loss is possible.
To bleach, or not to bleach? That is the question.
While long-term consequences are still to be determined, potential risk factors have been studied. The decision to whiten your teeth using conventional methods should be your judgment call based on the health of your teeth and gums. Your dentist will be able to tell you whether or not you should consider these treatments, and which ones you should avoid.
If you do decide to bleach, consider doing a treatment with your dentist or having customized trays made. For the most effective at-home bleaching treatment, avoid the convenience store and go straight to your dentist. They can create light-weight trays that fit exactly on your top and bottom teeth, which is perfect for preventing gum damage. You will also have access to professional grade bleach injectors to use inside of your trays. This route will save you money over time since store-bought strips, and generic trays are not as effective but are fairly costly.
Once you have bleached your teeth, be careful when you brush them. Your enamel is weakened after the bleaching process, and you don’t want to erode it away. Avoid whitening toothpaste after bleaching, as it’s highly abrasive. Use a soft bristled brush and don’t apply too much pressure to your newly whitened teeth.
Consider speaking to your dentist about taking a conservative approach to whitening using a low concentration of bleaching agents. There are varying degrees of whitening agents that they can apply during in-office treatments. This may take more than one visit for desired results. Be sure to also ask them about carbamide peroxide. Studies have shown that it tends to penetrate teeth less, causing less inflammation and sensitivity.
Ultimately, whitening your teeth is something you need to discuss with your dentist but also think about critically. Your first step should be to go in for a cleaning to clear the external part of your tooth, to let the whitening take full effect. After that, consider how much a whiter smile means to you, and choose which method you consider to be safest for you.