Your smile is how you express yourself. It’s the first thing people notice about you and plays a big role in your confidence. So it’s no wonder that teeth whitening is the most popular cosmetic dental procedure. On top of it being a quick and easy way to boost your smile, it’s affordable, safe, and widely available.
And now you have more whitening options than ever before. Whitening strips, trays, pens, LED-enhanced kits, in-office treatments — it can be a struggle to figure out which is best for you. In this guide, we’ll outline the pros and cons of the five most popular teeth whitening methods to help you decide which one is right for you.
Table of Contents
1) LED Whitening Kits
At-home LED-enhanced whitening kits are fairly new but quickly rose in popularity, dominating social feeds through advertising and influencers. While they certainly look cooler than your average strips or pens, there’s more to them than the aesthetic: lights with blue wavelengths may improve a whitening agent’s speed and effectiveness.
How? Essentially, blue light helps break down the gel into smaller particles. Those particles attach to the stains inside your teeth, oxidizing them, breaking them apart, and lifting them out. LED lights might not boost whitening was well as warmer options, such as halogen, but they’re significantly safer for at-home use.
The one downside of LED kits is their cost. You can find budget options, but many run over $100. But before you write them off, be sure to consider their results. You may be paying a little more upfront, but your kit could have enough power to deliver a noticeably whiter smile and enough whitening gel to keep those results maintained.
- Enhanced Results: Because the LED can improve the results of the whitening agent, the results tend to be more profound than standard treatments.
- Affordable: Even though they’re a little more expensive than other over-the-counter whitening kits, they’re still more affordable than professional whitening treatments.
- Reusable Equipment: Often, whitening LED lights are reusable. This means you just need to purchase the whitening gel for future treatments — allowing you to affordably maintain your results.
- Awkward Mouthpieces: While some companies do better than others here, in many — if not all — cases, they can be a little large and uncomfortable.
- Not Great on the Go: Because they require a mouthpiece and a power source, LED kits are harder to use outside your home or while doing other things.
Looking for an at-home option that offers stark changes to your ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos? LED treatments may be worth a look. To learn more about our favorite LED whitening brands, be sure to check out our in-depth review.
2) Whitening Strips
Once upon a time, teeth whitening was a strictly in-office treatment. Then, whitening strips took over-the-counter options mainstream. It’s easy to see why; they are an all-in-one solution that requires minimal prep or thought. No measuring gel, no cleaning trays, no holding an LED light in place. You just clean and dry your teeth, stick the strips in place, and go.
There are some variations between whitening strips. Some require just 30 minutes of wear, others require 60. Some use hydrogen peroxide, others carbamide peroxide — and some skip the peroxide completely. And then there are strips that dissolve in your mouth, no cleanup necessary.
The primary downside of whitening strips is that they don’t always reach all the surfaces of the teeth. If you have misaligned teeth, you might find the results slightly uneven. If this isn’t a concern for you, then they might be the easiest and most affordable whitening option, with most boxes of whitening strips costing between $20–$50.
- Affordable: Whitening strips are more affordable than at-home LED kits and custom trays, and significantly more affordable than in-office options.
- Typically Long-Lasting: With proper aftercare, you can expect results to last 4–6 months.
- Long Track Record: Whitening strips have been available over the counter for over 20 years and transformed millions of smiles.
- Not Suitable for Crooked Teeth: The strips need to touch each surface of the tooth to lighten it, so if you have crooked teeth, strips may not be the best choice.
- Adhesive Troubles: Some customers have said certain whitening strips don't stay on their teeth, or slide around during treatment.
If you’re looking for an affordable whitening option and your teeth are fairly aligned, whitening strips could be a great match for you. Discover our favorite whitening strips in our comparative review.
3) Whitening Pens
Unlike the other methods on this list, pens are not meant for significant teeth whitening. They can change your smile by a couple of shades but are generally intended for maintenance more than anything.
Despite this, whitening pens have a lot going for them. First, they are highly portable. You can pop them in your bag or pocket and use them to combat the effects of your daily coffee, red wine at dinner, or those berries you had as a snack. Second, they are easy and quick to use. You just dry your teeth, paint on the gel, and keep your lips off your teeth for about 60 seconds.
Finally, they are usually one of the most affordable options, with an average price range of $8–$30. If you aren’t looking to make a big change or want to maintain your smile after a more powerful treatment, whitening pens are a great tool to have.
- Portable: Whitening pens can slip into a pocket or handbag, so it’s easy to whiten your teeth while sitting in traffic, at your desk, or between stops on the subway.
- Affordable: One of the most affordable methods, pens usually cost between $8 and $30.
- More Control: Because you paint on the gel, you can control how much you use and can keep the gel away from delicate gum tissue.
- Varied Results: While some people swear by the results they get with a whitening pen, others say they don’t see any difference at all.
- Short-Term Results: On average, the results from whitening pens only last a few weeks before you need to reapply.
- Multiple Applications Per Day: To see results, you might need to apply twice a day.
Whitening pens are an easy and affordable way to maintain a bright smile. To find the option that best suits your unique needs, check out our comparison review.
4) Whitening Trays
Whitening trays are considered one of the most effective ways to brighten your smile. They hold the gel in place better than strips, which can slip and slide, and as long as the trays fit well, don’t allow the gel to be washed away as it is with pens.
There are multiple types of whitening trays available, including universal-fit, custom-made, boil-and-bite, and pre-filled options. Of these, the custom-made options tend to deliver the best results since they conform to the shape of your teeth, ensuring an even application of the gel, and don’t come with the risks of tooth damage like boil-and-bite options.
The cost of whitening trays is all over the board, from $45 on the more affordable end to $100+ when you opt for customized options. Like LED kits, finding an option with reusable equipment can save you money on maintenance treatments down the line.
- Custom Fit Options: Custom-made trays fit your teeth and gums perfectly. This helps reduce gum irritation and keeps the gel on your teeth.
- Affordable: Whitening trays are much less expensive than in-office treatments. If your trays are reusable, you only need to purchase whitening gel for touch-ups — not a whole new kit.
- Widely Available: You can find non-prescription-strength whitening trays in almost any store and online.
- Increased Risk of Gum Irritation: Especially when you first start out, you might add too much whitening gel, which can irritate your gums.
- One-Size-Fits-All Not Right For Everyone: OTC trays accommodate a wide range of mouths, and they may be too big for some people. Loose trays allow the gel to become diluted, which could delay your results and waste whitener.
If you want to keep your smile bright and your gums protected, whitening trays may be just your speed. To learn more about our favorite whitening trays, check out our in-depth comparison review.
5) Professional Whitening
Professional whitening — or in-office whitening — are treatments delivered by a dentist. These can be done “in the chair” or with a professional-grade whitening solution at home. And in some cases, it’s a combination of the two.
There are big benefits to professional treatments, including major shade changes, getting full results in a single session, and benefiting from things like sensitivity gel and gum isolation. Some treatments also use special lights or lasers for maximum effect.
Of course, all whitening methods have their downsides, and for professional treatments, the big one is cost. They’re around $400 on the more affordable end and can go over $2,000 for the most powerful systems, like KöR. Just keep in mind that results can last for years, so you get touch-ups less often than you would with at-home kits.
- Immediate Results: Since you only need one office visit for most treatments, you can have bright, white teeth in as little as one hour.
- No Irritated Gums: Your dentist applies a gum barrier, so you don’t need to worry about getting it on your gums.
- Deeper Whitening: Since your dentist can use prescription-strength whitener, it can remove deeper stains than over-the-counter products.
- Required Office Visits: Because of the high concentration of the whitening material and the special light needed, only your dentist can deliver these quick results.
- Sensitivity: Since powerful ingredients are used (and possibly lights), teeth may be sensitive after these procedures.
- Expensive: In-office whitening typically costs $500–$1,000 per session, and the average falls around $650.
If you want fast, long-lasting results and you don’t mind a premium price tag, professional whitening may be worth considering. To get a better sense of the landscape of professional whitening, check out our comprehensive review.
If you’ve watched a commercial or wandered through a drugstore’s oral hygiene aisle recently, you’re well aware that there are more ways than ever to whiten your smile. Though a sea of options can seem daunting, it can also be empowering.
All the whitening methods we’ve featured in this piece are regarded as safe and effective ways to brighten your smile. All you need to do is determine which option best suits your unique needs. Whether you want to spring for a flashy Hollywood grin, brighten your smile for an important occasion, or incorporate affordable maintenance to your regular oral care routine, there’s a whitening system out there for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is teeth whitening safe?
Yes — for most people. It’s a good idea to discuss teeth whitening with your dentist before you start. If you have untreated cavities or gum disease, you could do more harm than good.
Will my teeth be sensitive?
Maybe. It depends on the strength of the whitening agent and how long it’s on your teeth.
Can I eat or drink after whitening?
Most brands recommend waiting at least 30 minutes before eating or drinking anything other than water, since your teeth will absorb new stains more easily for a while after whitening.
How can I make my results last longer?
Limit food and drink that stains your teeth, like coffee, tea, wine, and berries. Flossing and brushing between meals will also help keep your teeth white between treatments.
When will I see results?
That depends on the method of whitening you choose. An in-office visit will take about an hour, but an at-home method might take a few weeks if the whitening agent isn’t very strong.
Will insurance cover my teeth whitening?
Not usually. Insurance providers typically consider teeth whitening a cosmetic procedure, so it’s not covered. Some rare cases might be covered if the tooth discoloration is due to nerve damage.
What if I have deep stains, like those caused by tetracycline?
At-home kits won’t help, and few in-office treatments can make a real difference. However, KöR can. Look for a provider near you to have your teeth assessed.
Why are whitening pens not ideal as a primary whitening method?
Essentially, the gel gets washed off your teeth by your saliva as soon as you close your mouth. It doesn’t get the chance to really get into the enamel and lift out the stains. However, they work well to eliminate surface stains.
Can I whiten my teeth every day?
In general, no. However, there are certain products designed for daily use, such as strips and pens that do not contain peroxide. Be sure to carefully read the instructions before using any whitening product so you can keep your smile safe.
If I have aligners, can I whiten my teeth?
Yes, but be careful about the whitening products you use. Some are too powerful and can damage the aligners. Most companies offer their own whitening products that are suited to the plastic you use, so look into that option first.