For a lot of folks, an ideal smile includes bright white teeth — and with many whitening products sold over the counter, teeth whitening can feel like a very casual process.
However, while there are many safe ways to whiten your teeth, there are also potential risks. It’s important to educate yourself about how to whiten safely in order to best preserve your teeth in the long run. In this guide, we’ll explain how whitening actually works, how it impacts your teeth long-term, and recommend some tips for ensuring safe teeth-whitening treatment.
Table of Contents
How Does Whitening Actually Work?
There are two different types of staining that can lead to the discoloration of your teeth. Extrinsic (or external) staining is what most people are aware of. Extrinsic staining is from the food we eat, the wine we drink, and cigarette smoke. These stains can be addressed in some way by the majority of teeth whitening treatment.
Intrinsic (or internal) staining is a little more complicated. This can occur as a medication side effect, an infection, or simply just a byproduct of getting older. These stains are more difficult to remove, but it is possible with the right treatment.
There are no shortages of approaches to teeth whitening. There are smaller impact whitening options (like whitening toothpaste) that use abrasion to essentially give your teeth stains a light exfoliation. Some of these products include the chemical blue covarine, which will act faster than alternatives.
There are other more impactful over the counter treatments that involve a gel, whether applied in a strip or in a tray. Some of these treatments can be accompanied by a blue LED light. These gel options use peroxide and bleach to whiten teeth.
The most effective teeth whitening options are administered by your dentist, either for at-home use or in-office options like chairside bleaching. These options are typically a much more concentrated amount of bleach and peroxide, and are the longest lasting. They can address both extrinsic and intrinsic stains.
How Does Whitening Impact Your Teeth Long Term?
When it comes to the dangers of teeth whitening, most of the concern is regarding overuse. Though there are many different schools of thought with whitening amongst industry professionals, the one thing most folks can agree on is that you should definitely consult your dentist before beginning treatment (whether in-office or over the counter).
The three main areas of concern are your enamel, your dentin, and your gums. If a few of those terms don’t sound familiar, sit tight — we’re getting there.
Your enamel is the outermost part of your tooth. It’s a tissue that basically exists to help your teeth avoid harm. Enamel is stronger than bone, but not infallible. When your dentist cautions you against sugary foods, the enamel is what they are trying to protect. The enamel is the layer of tooth that experiences the external staining we mentioned earlier, from dark consumables like wine and pomegranates.
Some dentists claim that the enamel of your teeth can be worn down by overdoing whitening treatment. There are ways to mitigate this, but it’s important to know that when your enamel is gone it’s gone for good. So it’s crucial to approach teeth whitening knowing it has cumulative effects on your body, and is best implemented with a mind for the future — not just the present.
Just beneath the enamel is the dentin. Dentin is softer than enamel and comprises a much larger part of your tooth. It’s also where most of the color in your teeth comes from. This is where the internal staining we outlined earlier occurs, mostly due to factors out of our control like aging, mouth trauma, or being on certain medications in childhood. If the enamel becomes cracked or damaged, the dentin becomes more vulnerable. Unlike enamel, it is actually capable of repairing itself.
Many people feel tooth or gum sensitivity after treatment. This typically doesn’t last very long, but could be your body sending you a signal to cool it with the whitening for a while. Some professionals worry that overuse of whitening treatment could potentially lead to gum recession over time, so it’s important that you follow treatment guidelines, especially with unsupervised at-home methods.
Are Some Whitening Products Better/Safer Than Others?
The safest way to whiten your teeth is to have your dentist oversee your treatment. That said, when using over-the-counter products, always be sure to choose products with the seal of approval from the American Dental Association (ADA), as these have been tested for your safety.
Do your best to take a step back from the new whitening craze to do your own research. For example, certain methods that are accepted as natural and wholesome like charcoal toothpaste, actually pose potential dangers with continued use.
If you choose an over the counter product, be sure to follow their directions.
Whitening toothpaste is a mild but effective way to get some external staining off of teeth, though there are some potential hazards. Because of their abrasive nature, they may not be suitable for long term use. Be sure to get one with ADA approval, and consult your dentist before using any charcoal toothpaste — which there has been much less research on and is potentially more hazardous than traditional whitening toothpaste.
Whitening mouthwash is less of a stain remover and more of a way to maintain teeth that have already been whitened. But this is a great addition to a good oral hygiene routine, particularly after meals!
Over the counter gel whiteners (whether in trays or strips)
At-home gel whiteners can be an effective and inexpensive way to get a bright smile that sticks around for a few months. Depending on the brand you choose, results can start to show in 7-14 days.
The tray will fit kind of like a mouthguard, and you’ll put the whitening agent inside and bite down. The strips will come with hydrogen peroxide already on them, and you’ll simply place one on your top set of teeth and one on your bottom.
The concern with these treatments is that the tray or strips may not necessarily fit your mouth very well, leading the whitening gel to leak onto your gums. The gel (more specifically, the hydrogen peroxide in the gel) is what causes temporary burning and sensitivity in the teeth and gums. With whitening trays, be careful how much gel you are actually adding, because it can spill over.
Like all whitening treatments, it’s best to consult your dentist before starting with an over the counter treatment. Remember to choose a brand with the ADA seal of approval. Overall, it’s very important with these over the counter remedies to follow the care instructions and listen to your teeth if they start burning or becoming sensitive, as that’s usually a sign to take it easy for a while.
LED activated treatment (whether at home or in-office)
There isn’t a lot of research supporting the success of LED treatment. Supposedly, its blue light activates the whitening agent and speeds up the whitening process. There isn’t a lot of data supporting this claim, but that hasn’t stopped it from being a staple of at-home and in-office treatments.
Whitening pens are handheld ways to coat each tooth individually in whitening gel. Though easy to apply, unfortunately this method is challenging to see results with, since our saliva usually gets in the way and makes it hard for the peroxide to do its job. With trays and strips, our lips, tongues, and saliva cannot interfere in this way.
Whitening pens are similar to whitening mouthwash, in that they aren’t necessarily the right tool for removing stains, but they can be a good tool for maintaining an already whitened smile. They can be a good tool to throw in your bag for a night out, if you know you’re going to be drinking red wine and unable to brush your teeth for a few hours. It’s like a tide-to-go pen, but for stains on your teeth!
At-home custom whitening tray from your dentist
Your dentist can take impressions of your teeth to build a custom whitening tray for you. This will help keep the gel from leaking onto your gums, avoiding potential gum sensitivity. This method won’t be as rapid as an in-office treatment, but due to the higher concentration of peroxide it’s likely this method will give you results that last longer than other at-home options.
This method offers the most rapid results and the most professional oversight. Your gums will be protected during this process. You can still get sensitivity afterwards, but likely less so than over the counter options and you will be monitored by your dentist. This method uses the highest concentration of bleach so the results will be the longest lasting (between 1 and 3 years!). They also have the best chance of tackling challenging intrinsic stains.
How Often is it Safe to Whiten?
This very much depends on your particular set of circumstances, but it is not safe to whiten in perpetuity. Once your enamel is gone it is gone forever, so it’s important to be mindful of the future when you begin your whitening journey.
There can sometimes come a point where your teeth will no longer be receptive to whitening treatment. If you opt for an in-office treatment, your dentist could track the shade of your teeth to be sure to notice when your teeth start to plateau. Doing an at-home kit makes something like this a little more difficult, since it can be challenging to notice those small changes in ourselves.
Be sure to talk this through with your dentist, and follow the treatment plans so that no additional damage is being done to your pearly whites by leaving treatment on too long.
What If I Have Sensitive Teeth/Gums?
It’s important to talk to your dentist before deciding to undergo treatment. Sensitive teeth and gums can mean many different things, some more harmless than others. Though sensitivity can mean something relatively benign, it can be hard to know without a professional opinion whether or not your sensitivity could potentially delay treatment.
There are more potential hazards associated with over the counter products than with dentist administered treatment (whether completed at home or in-office). This is due to the personalization of care. If your dentist is doing your treatment themselves, the gums will be protected from peroxide much more than an over the counter option.
With over the counter treatments, products can be one size fits all, sometimes causing the gel to spill up onto your gums — since not all mouths are the same. So if you do have sensitive teeth or gums, and your dentist gives you the go ahead to get your teeth whitened, a dentist supervised method will be the best way to ensure your sensitive teeth and gums are being protected throughout treatment.
If you have gum disease, even as mild as gingivitis, it’s likely your dentist won’t recommend moving forward with treatment until your issues are resolved. The good news is — it’s probably possible that those issues can be resolved! Depending on the severity of your condition, some will have more complicated healing processes than others — but having gum disease does not automatically rule you out from being a teeth whitening candidate in the future.
There are also over the counter options that contain less than 10% of hydrogen peroxide. So if your dentist thinks you’re fine to move forward with treatment, and you want to make sure that you avoid discomfort as much as possible, sticking with these low peroxide content options will likely be a better match for you.
Ways to Reduce the Negative Effects of Whitening
Over bleaching can have some serious consequences, but there are choices you can make that help maintain your whitened smile longer — necessitating fewer bleaches overall. If a bright smile is important to you but so is your long term oral health, these preventative measures may help you have the best of both worlds.
You may hear some cities boasting about how their city has high fluoride content in the water. They’re right to boast! Fluoride is a great ally for you on your teeth whitening journey. Though enamel cannot be built back once it is gone, it can be protected. Fluoride strengthens enamel and protects against decay. You can choose a toothpaste or mouthwash with fluoride to add this helpful mineral to your oral hygiene routine.
You can also get fluoride treatments at your dentist, which not only help aid in the protection of enamel, but protect against cavities as well (which can delay whitening treatments). These treatments aren’t necessary for everyone, but if you’re prone to tooth decay they may be a great addition to your dental appointments.
There are fluoride supplements, but check with your dentist before taking these. Even with fluoride you can get too much of a good thing.
Straws are your friend
We know that people are sick of being told that coffee and soda stain their teeth. Many of us love our rituals so much that it can be hard to change them. We get that! So if you can’t give up staining beverages, we recommend adding a straw. Simply including a straw in the consumption of classically staining drinks will help bypass your teeth completely in your consumption of them.
Maintain good oral hygiene
This may seem obvious, but deciding to have a dedicated oral hygiene routine can really make a difference in how long your whitening lasts. Be sure to brush twice a day and floss every day — especially after meals. Even just rinsing some water in your mouth after a meal can help maintain your smile in the long run!
Let your saliva do its job
Saliva is an amazing little helper. It washes away much of the sugar and acid that stays on our teeth after a meal. In order to keep the saliva flowing, it’s important to stay hydrated. Drinks like soda or alcohol dry our mouths out — so not only are you dealing with the acidic damages of these drinks, you also don’t have the help of your trusty saliva. To help mitigate this, be sure to drink a lot of water if you consume soda or alcohol.
Acidic food and drink
We all know that at our dentist’s office, public enemy number one is sugar. However, that doesn’t mean if you’re sugar free you’re in the clear. Highly acidic foods like citrus, and very starchy foods (which break down into sugar) like bread or potato chips can have a similar effect on our pearly whites.
Again, we know no one wants to hear that some of our favorite foods help tarnish our hard earned smile. So if you are not interested in parting ways with these foods, getting into the habit of rinsing your mouth out with water after consuming highly acidic foods and drinks can help mitigate the damage these foods cause.
It’s best to wait at least 30 minutes after a highly acidic meal before brushing your teeth. Before then, it can actually be harmful to add the abrasion of brushing into the equation while your saliva is trying to do its thing.
If you want to brighten your smile, though there are risks, there are also many ways to help mitigate those risks — especially if you are willing to change some of your habits. A few simple tweaks can put you in a much better position to maintain your bright smile.
For the fastest results, and the most oversight, an in-office option (or an at-home plan designed by your dentist) will likely be the best path for you. If you want something milder, a whitening toothpaste might be a simple tweak to your habits that can over time help showcase a lighter smile (just be sure to check in with your dentist and choose an ADA approved brand).
At-home DIY kits yield relatively fast results that can last up to a few months, but there are greater risks with these options than in-office ones. Just be sure to choose an ADA approved brand and follow their directions carefully, while continuing with regular trips to the dentist.
There are many paths forward with teeth whitening that can be safe. Just open a dialogue with your dentist and keep up your good oral hygiene habits!
Frequently Asked Questions
What teeth whitening treatment provides the most noticeable results?
In office treatment. This can be completed in a day (oor depending on circumstance it may be administered over a few sessions) and will make your teeth anywhere between 3-8 shades brighter.
Does charcoal toothpaste work for teeth whitening?
Since it is abrasive, it does help remove some surface stains, but most activated charcoal brands do not contain fluoride which can put your enamel at risk. Charcoal toothpaste is not for everyday use and you should consult your dentist about it before adding it to your oral hygiene routine.
What’s the best whitening system for coffee drinkers?
Many over the counter whitening options can address external stains like coffee stains, however the best option would be an in-office whitening option with your dentist, to really get your teeth the brightest they can be.
I’m in a rush, what’s the fastest-working whitening system?
An in-office whitening treatment is the fastest option for teeth whitening. You can have whiter teeth in one session. Sometimes treatment may be administered in a few sessions, but the results will still be more significant and faster than at home brands.
Does whitening work for everyone?
It does not. Unfortunately if you are dealing with severe gum disease or have many fillings, treatment may not work for you. It’s best to check in with your dentist to see what your options are.
Does LED treatment provide better results?
There is not a lot of research showing effectiveness of LED light in regards to whitening teeth. It’s stated purpose is to “activate” the whitening agent on the teeth to speed up treatment, but there is very little evidence that this actually happens.
What is the one food/drink I should cut out of my diet to preserve my teeth?
We know that food is very personal and deciding to cut something out can be complicated and even emotional for folks. However, if you want to improve your oral health and are willing to do so, cutting out soda would be our suggested starting point. Its acidity and sugar content can significantly harm your chances of a healthy mouth.
If the bleaching agent gets on my gums, will my gums become lighter?
They will become lighter from the bleach, but this is only temporary. You may feel some sensitivity but it will fade.
Will these treatments work on my veneers?
Whitening treatments will not work on fake teeth, so if you’d like a whiten smile you’ll need to replace your teeth, which can be expensive.
What are the best ways to protect my whitened smile?
Good oral hygiene and regular trips to the dentist, plus an awareness of how to prevent future staining through diet and lifestyle choices.