Is Teeth Whitening Safe, and Does It Work?

Strips, gels and professional treatments can help you achieve a brighter smile
Person applying teeth whitening strip

Nobody wants to be famous for their pearly yellows.

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As we age, our smile begins to fade and looks a little dingy. Certain foods and drinks, as well as smoking, can cause discoloration affecting our once-gleaming grin.

Enter at-home teeth whitening products like strips and gels. These options have gained popularity, but are they really a safe way to brighten your smile? Or should you opt for in-office professional whitening treatments?

Dentist Anne Clemons, DMD, explains how teeth whitening works and if it’s worth it.

How does teeth whitening work?

There are different ways you can whiten your teeth.

At-home options include products like sticky strips or gel-filled trays. They’re easily available over the counter, and they can do a great job lightening teeth and removing stains.

Just place strips or a tray on your teeth and leave on for the recommended amount of time (these can vary per product, so make sure you follow the instructions).

The formula used in most at-home products contains hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, a chemical that contains hydrogen peroxide. A natural bleaching agent, hydrogen peroxide breaks down molecules that cause discoloration caused by coffee, tea, red wine and smoking.

Carbamide peroxide does the same, but it releases about 50% of its whitening ability in the first few hours and can remain active for hours after. Overall, the effects of hydrogen peroxide and carbamide are the same.

You may need to use at-home products daily for a week to achieve results.

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You can also turn to professional teeth whitening. Your dentist will use a stronger concentration of hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.

In-office treatments may give you longer-lasting results over a shorter amount of time. You may only need one treatment or just a few visits to achieve the bright smile you want. But the cost for such treatments may be more than at-home options.

Is teeth whitening worth it?

If your goal is to get a bright white smile, teeth whitening can be a safe option. But it’s important to talk to a dentist first about your options and do your research.

Research shows that hydrogen peroxide products might damage proteins in your teeth’s dentin layer. Dentin is the hard tissue that lies beneath your teeth’s surface enamel.

Another study shows that whitening products might also roughen or soften your teeth’s surface.

But there’s a caveat. “These studies were done in a lab, not on living teeth,” notes Dr. Clemons.

It’s possible that the changes are temporary and could reverse after a person stops using teeth bleaching products. Even if the changes stick around, though, it’s not clear if they equal bad news for your choppers.

“We don’t know yet whether this is something that will have a long-term effect on tooth health,” Dr. Clemons says.

It’s also important to take into consideration what type of product you’re using and how it fits within your mouth. You want to keep hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide on your teeth and off your gums to avoid sensitivity and irritation.

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How to safely whiten your teeth

Now for some reassurance. Bleaching products have been around for decades, and millions of people use them — including plenty of dentists, Dr. Clemons points out.

“And we haven’t seen an increase in problems like cavity risk or tooth fractures after bleaching,” she says.

The American Dental Association (ADA) has also said that hydrogen peroxide whiteners are safe and effective.

If you do use them, Dr. Clemmons advises how to do so safely:

  1. Look for the ADA seal of approval. You’ll find it on whitening toothpastes and teeth bleaching products that have been found safe and effective in independent tests.
  2. Follow the instructions. Some products are designed to be used once a day, while others can be used twice a day. Some, you use for a week, some, for two … you get the idea. To protect your teeth, be sure to follow the product’s instructions.
  3. See your dentist. “Ask your dentist if these products are right for you,” Dr. Clemons says. Bleaching products work best on teeth that have yellowed with aging, or teeth that are stained from food and drink (looking at you, coffee and red wine). But brown or gray discoloration could signal problems that a bleaching kit won’t fix. It’s also important to tackle concerns like gum disease or cavities before starting a bleaching treatment. “Your dentist can also recommend the best product for you, and make sure you’re doing it right,” she adds.
  4. Listen to your teeth. Some people develop temporary sensitivity in their gums or teeth when using whitening products. That’s not a sign of long-term damage, but it can be uncomfortable. If it happens to you, consider taking a break from bleaching or switching to a milder product. Again, talk to your dentist for the right advice.

How to avoid stains on your teeth

You can take steps to keep your teeth sparkling so you won’t have to use teeth bleaching products so often, too.

Dr. Clemons offers the following tips:

  • Brush thoroughly twice a day (and don’t forget to floss).
  • Quit smoking.
  • Limit stain offenders like coffee, tea and red wine.
  • Go for regular dental cleanings to remove plaque and surface stains.

Teeth whitening products — whether an over-the-counter option you use at home or a professional treatment — can be effective and safe, if used correctly.

“If you want a brighter smile, teeth whitening products can be good tools,” says Dr. Clemons. “But they aren’t a substitute for good dental hygiene.”

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