Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Tooth Whitening

Here's what you should know about tooth whitening options.

Having a bright smile has long been a symbol of beauty and prominence, and people have tried various methods to attain it. Ancient Egyptians and ancient Romans used things like vinegar, goats milk and even urine to get their teeth pearly-white. Fortunately, tooth whitening methods have improved (no urine, hooray!) but with so many products available in an ever-growing market, how do you know what method to choose?

First, it’s important to understand the key differences and the products available so you can make the best choice for you and your smile goals.

What’s the difference between tooth whitening and tooth bleaching?

While most people use the terms tooth whitening and tooth bleaching interchangeably, the terms actually mean different things and produce different results. Tooth whitening is the process of restoring the natural color of teeth by removing surface stains. This type of whitening is called extrinsic whitening because it removes stains from the exterior surface of the tooth. Whiteners are cleaning agents, like toothpaste or mouth rinses, that effectively remove stains that occur over time. 

Bleaching teeth is the process of making teeth whiter than their natural shade using ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, which is absorbed into the tooth. This type of whitening is called intrinsic whitening because it changes the shade of the tooth from the inside. 

Now that we’ve differentiated between tooth whitening and bleaching, let’s look at the methods used for each of them, what is safe, and what to avoid.

How to brighten your teeth

There are two main categories of ways to brighten your teeth within both the intrinsic (bleaching) and extrinsic (whitening) methods:

  1. Store-bought methods
  2. Professional-grade, dentist-supervised methods.

So how do you know which is best? It depends on your desired outcome. First, you should understand how each works and what results you should expect.

Store-bought methods

  • Stain-removal toothpaste is a good everyday whitening option. The right toothpaste will remove surface stains via mild abrasives that scrub the teeth. Make sure you get a toothpaste that has the ADA Seal of Acceptance for stain removal, because these brands are safe for your teeth. Using materials that are too abrasive can cause damage by removing the enamel. But what about “all-natural” methods such as oil pulling, charcoal toothpaste, and spices to whiten teeth? They may whiten teeth by removing surface stains, but they can’t bleach teeth, and there’s no current scientific research to support the effectiveness of these methods.
  • Over-the-counter bleaching products are a popular choice because they can be bought in-store or online. These bleaching strips do lighten the shade of your teeth, but the concentration of bleaching agent (hydrogen peroxide) is much lower than the kind you’d get at your dentist’s office. They’re also a one-size-fits-all tray or strip, which can mean reduced efficacy of the bleach, damage to your gums, or tooth sensitivity. If you decide to go this route, make sure you use one of the ADA-accepted at-home bleaching products.

Professional methods

  • In-office bleaching provides optimum results in a short period of time, which is why it’s a popular treatment option. This is a great option for anyone who wants results faster, is dissatisfied with the store-bought methods, or doesn’t want to bother with at-home kits. Your dentist will take note of the current shade of your teeth and your desired whitening goals to customize your bleaching solution. A barrier will be placed along your gum line to protect it from damage from the bleaching. Then the solution will be applied to your teeth, and in many cases a laser or light will be used to activate the solution. The entire process typically takes between 60 and 90 minutes while you relax in the dental chair.  
  • At-home bleaching is a patient favorite because you can bleach your teeth while catching up on your favorite Netflix series (Game of Thrones returns in April … just saying…) Your dentist will give you a high-grade whitening solution and a custom-fit tray with instructions to get the best results. If you’re drawn to the store-bought option because of the flexibility it provides, but you want better results, this is a good option for you. Your custom-fit tray will prevent the solution from burning your gums and will reduce tooth sensitivity. This type of bleaching can take between a few days and weeks, depending on the shade of your teeth and the desired level of whitening.

A quick glance

Tooth whitening is the process of removing surface stains from teeth to give them a more lustrous appearance. You can do this by using products such as whitening toothpaste, mouthwash, and rinses. In addition, visiting your hygienist for routine cleanings will keep your smile looking bright.

Tooth bleaching is the process of bleaching the interior color of the tooth using high-grade solutions designed to lighten the color. This method has best results when administered by a dentist who uses professional-grade bleaching solutions and techniques to avoid gum damage or tooth sensitivity.

Ok, this all sounds great; so what’s the best way to brighten my teeth?

The optimal method for brightening your smile is to first have a dentist-supervised professional-grade bleaching treatment, with regular touch-ups provided by or recommended by your dentist. This will ensure the best results in a shorter period of time while having the materials needed to maintain that level of brightness. You should always consult your dentist prior to doing any kind of bleaching, to make sure your teeth and gum tissues are healthy, otherwise, bleaching could have adverse effects.