Teeth whitening is more than a fad, it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry that will see more than 10 millions Americans spend over (an estimated) $2 billion this year. Teeth whitening is by far the most common cosmetic service provided by dentists right across America, and the sales growth in mail-order and over-the-counter products has surged on a massive scale.
But are brilliant white teeth really achievable? Is teeth whitening safe? Does it hurt? What is the best method? Can you do it at home? These are all very common questions, and in general you will find the answers to be: Yes, Yes, Not normally, (arguably) Bleaching, Yes.
Whiter teeth can be achieved via a number of different methods, both at your dentist (or professional teeth whitening office) and at home. In fact, many dentists actually perform the first one or two treatments, then get you all kitted-up so you can do the rest at home. but that’s for the ‘bleaching’ methods, there are other avenues you can travel down in your quest for whiter teeth that involve structural changes to your teeth, like ‘bonding’ and ‘porcelain veneers’.
Bleach-based teeth whitening products all basically have the same goal – to penetrate deep into your tooth enamel to rid it of stains. Tooth enamel is porous, so brushing and scouring products don’t work, and this is where bleach-based tooth whitening products come into play. You see the most effective methods actually use bleaching chemicals to penetrate deep into the tooth enamel. They set off an oxidising process that breaks down the staining compounds in the enamel leaving you with bright white teeth. Sounds simple, but there are many products on the market that fall short of promises. Most over-the-counter products only ever manage to whiten teeth marginally, while the more professional products can provide you with extreme changes to the whiteness of your teeth.
The entry-level teeth whitening product would be a whitening toothpaste. Some people have demonstrated a slight improvement in brightness, but because a toothpaste isn’t exposed to your teeth for very long (you only brush for a few minutes), they typically are not able to penetrate deep enough to have much effect. Some toothpastes actually contain very strong chemicals that are aimed at working quickly (based on the short timeframe they are exposed to your teeth) and instead of working to penetrate the enamel and oxidise/clean the stains, they can actually work as an abrasive that will etch away the enamel.
Next in line we have whitening strips. Whitening Strips are thin, flexible pieces of plastic that have been coated on one side with a thin film of hydrogen-peroxide bleach (normally 6-10% strength). They are pressed against the top and lower teeth and normally need to be worn for 30 mins (twice daily) for 7-14 days. They do work, but because they cannot get into all the nooks and crannies and gaps between teeth, the results can sometimes be blotchy and less desirable than anticipated.
Getting more serious, we have bleach-based tooth whitening products which will involve a tray being placed in your mouth that has been injected with a ‘bleaching’ solution (hydrogen peroxide). This procedure can be done at home or by your dentist, or by a combination of dentist / at home. You can buy cheap over-the-counter ‘boil and bite’ trays that are virtually ready to use out of the packet. You boil the tray to get it hot and mouldable, place it in your mouth and bite into it. The end-result is a ‘partially’ moulded tray that is ready for use. The disadvantage of this type of tray is that it will not fit snugly which results in inconsistent results and leakage of the bleaching gel into your mouth and gums. Leakage of the bleach into the mouth is undesirable for obvious reasons, and smears on/around the gums can result in temporary (and even long terms) bleaching of the gums.
Professional systems see you being fitted out with a custom-fitting tray which is essential to assure proper bleaching and consistent results. Using a custom tray will almost definitely result in less leakage into you mouth and gums. Custom fitting trays can be acquired directly from your dentist or from various online specialists who have a DIY custom tray kit. With this type of system you actually get shipped all the necessary items to make an impression of your teeth so your own custom-fitting stray can be made. You basically make your impression with the items provided, place it in the preaddressed packing envelope and mail it off. They will make your customized bleaching trays in a certified laboratory and send them back to you within 2-7 business days… than all you need to do is apply the gel into the tray and put it in your mouth for the recommended periods.
The most important part of a teeth whitening system is the gel that is used. You can have an expensive custom-fitted tray (mouthpiece), but if you don’t have the right teeth whitening gel, you will spend far too much time with the tray in your mouth and or your results will not be as expected. To understand the differences between whitening gels and why they are considered as the best tooth whitener, it is preferable to understand exactly what they are made of, and what they actually do.
Most gels contain either carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide, and some contain fillers and flavors. Carbamide peroxide actually breaks down into hydrogen peroxide in the mouth. Hydrogen peroxide is the active whitener (it’s the same chemical that will bleach your hair). The difference between most gels is the strength of the peroxide. Most gels these days are around 15% and up, with some of the most popular being around 22%. The strength of the peroxide obviously will play a determining factor in how long you need to leave the tray in your mouth, and tooth sensitivity can be a major part of deciding on what strength to use. But, in saying that, it is not actually the strength of the peroxide that usually causes sensitivity, but rather the length of time that the teeth are exposed to the chemical. That is why some people prefer to go for a higher strength (such as 22%) but use it for a shorter period of time. You can also get higher strengths like 35%, but these are only recommended for short ‘bursts’ of maintenance, perhaps monthly for periods of 15-30mins.
Other types of professional teeth whitening include bonding and porcelain veneers. These both involve actual structural change to your teeth. Bonding involves a composite resin that is moulded onto the teeth to change their color and to reshape them. The resin material can stain and chip over time. Bonding can usually be done in one office visit for $300-$700 per tooth. Porcelain veneers are shell-like facings that can be bonded onto stained teeth. They are used to reshape and/or lengthen teeth as well as to whiten. Veneers require at least two office visits and cost $700 to $1,200 per tooth.