A smile expresses your emotions. But if your teeth are yellow, stained or discolored, you may be self-conscious about flashing your grin to the world.
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And you’re not alone. More than 37 million Americans used teeth whiteners in 2020.
With an array of new products and at-home remedies to keep those pearly whites top-notch, we turn to dentist Anne Clemons, DMD, for what treatments are safe to try at home.
Yes, there are a handful of methods that may make your teeth appear whiter. But Dr. Clemons warns that some treatments come with side effects.
“Most of the effects are temporary,” she says. “You may experience sensitivity or gum irritation.”
Also, it’s important to understand what kind of stains you may have. Most at-home products treat extrinsic stains — discolorations on the outside of your teeth. These types of stains are caused by things like red wine, tea, coffee and smoking.
Intrinsic stains are a result of the tooth itself being discolored, either the enamel or the dentin. Sometimes this can happen due to genetic disorders or medications you may have taken as a child. Age has a lot to do with it as well.
“One thing that happens with aging is that the outer surface of the tooth, the white enamel, becomes thinner and the dentin, which is underneath, is yellow,” says Dr. Clemons.
If you want to whiten your teeth, here are a few popular at-home treatments.
Hydrogen peroxide, which is a natural bleaching agent, can be used to whiten teeth. Bleaching is a chemical process that uses the oxidative chemical to break down color-causing molecules and change or remove those bonds. You may experience tooth sensitivity and gum inflammation.
“Bleaching is really more specific to changing the perception of whiteness within the tooth,” says Dr. Clemons. “Bleaching is really what will change those intrinsic stains.”
Hydrogen peroxide is typically safe to use when it’s found in products like mouthwash and toothpaste, but pay attention to how much is used.
“Concentrations can vary a lot,” says Dr. Clemons. “Look for something that’s formulated specifically for dental use because you’re going to have a more controlled percentage of it.”
Rather than using pure hydrogen peroxide at home (which isn’t recommended), Clemons says using a gel or whitening strips will give you safe and effective results. Just be sure to follow directions and don’t use longer than indicated.
“What gives you a good outcome is how much contact time the peroxide has with the tooth,” she says. “Something like a gel or a strip that’s held on the tooth for a longer period of time will have better results than toothpaste or mouthwash.”
The faithful pantry ingredient has many uses, including whitening teeth. But again, Dr. Clemons suggests looking for dental products that contain baking soda.
“What’s nice about baking soda is that it’s actually less abrasive than a lot of other ingredients,” she says. “If you compare it to other whitening toothpaste, it doesn’t have that same grit, so it’s a bit gentler on the teeth.”
In fact, Dr. Clemons says that toothpaste made with baking soda is more effective in removing stains than several other kinds of toothpaste.
“What you want to make sure of with any of these toothpastes is that you’re still getting fluoride,” she says. “One of the main benefits of a toothpaste is that you’re getting at least two daily applications of fluoride to the teeth.”
A traditional Indian practice, oil pulling can be time-consuming and may not offer the kind of results you’re hoping for.
“I haven’t seen any good evidence that it will whiten teeth,” says Dr. Clemons.
The process involves using 1 tablespoon of oil like sesame, coconut or sunflower to swish around your mouth for 15 to 20 minutes a day. The thought process is that the oil is cleaning not only your teeth but between them as well.
“Oil pulling is not a substitute for keeping teeth clean,” says Dr. Clemons. “It’s not going to substitute for brushing and flossing but could be used in combination with those.”
A popular way to whiten teeth, whitening strips or trays can have a positive effect on your smile.
Most products will contain carbamide peroxide (a chemical that contains hydrogen peroxide) or hydrogen peroxide. You’ll typically have to wear the solution on your teeth for 30 to 45 minutes daily.
“By using carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide you’re going to get the true bleaching result,” says Dr. Clemons. “Those chemicals are breaking the bonds of those color-causing molecules and you’ll actually see a result.”
With so many options available for home use, the main difference to look for is fit. A customized fit, especially in trays, will give you more control over where the gel or formula goes and how long it stays on. That helps not only how effective the treatment is but can also protect your gums and teeth from side effects like sensitivity and gum irritation.
Getting closer to a gleaming smile depends on what treatment you use and how long you use it for, says Dr. Clemons.
“It could take a couple of weeks to get the same results with one type of strip versus maybe seven days for something that’s a little bit stronger,” she says.
But before you start any kind of whitening treatment, it’s important to make sure your teeth are healthy.
“If there’s an underlying cavity or gum disease and you put a bleaching solution on your teeth and gums, you’re more likely to have adverse effects,” says Dr. Clemons.
While there have been claims that other products like activated charcoal, kaolin clay, apple cider vinegar and fruits like pineapple and strawberries are effective in removing stains, Dr. Clemons hasn’t seen proof of them working. In fact, the acid from apple cider vinegar and fruits and the abrasiveness of activated charcoal can harm the enamel of teeth.
But preventing teeth stains can be a never-ending battle, so in addition to using a whitening treatment you can fight stains before they form by:
“The main things to do are to keep your teeth clean and healthy by brushing and flossing every day and making sure you see your dental hygienist regularly to help get any of those extrinsic stains off your teeth,” says Dr. Clemons.