Whitening strips, whitening pens, and even one-size-fits-all whitening trays are all great ways to brighten your smile. But if you want to get as close as possible to the professional whitening experience within the comfort of your own home, you have to go with custom whitening trays.
These trays look a lot like plastic retainers or clear aligners like Invisalign. They are made to perfectly match the shape and orientation of your teeth, getting whitening gel into all the hard-to-reach areas and delivering even results. In this guide, we’re deep-diving into everything you need to know about custom whitening trays, whether you get them from your dentist or order them online.
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How Do Custom Whitening Trays Work?
Custom whitening trays are nothing new; in fact, they have been around for decades. These trays first hit the market in 1990, after a dentist developed special trays for his daughter that were cut around the gumline to reduce irritation and prevent gel from causing chemical burns.
These trays forever changed the world of teeth whitening, making it more effective and comfortable. Soon, dentists all over the world were making them — and now, direct-to-consumer companies offer them as well.
The start-up process varies depending on if you work with a dentist or go it alone. A dentist will either take a physical mold or your teeth or use a 3D scan to generate your trays. For at-home options, the company will mail you an impression kit and you’ll take your molds yourself. These molds or scans are then used by a dental lab to create trays that perfectly match your teeth.
While they are pretty form-fitting, they aren’t as tight as retainers or aligners. In fact, there is a very small well over each tooth, which is where you place dots of gel. You’ll need to place the correct amount (specified by your doctor or the instructions in the kit) in the well for each tooth, then place the trays over the teeth. You keep them in place for as long as directed, then rinse your mouth and trays. Within a few days to a few weeks, you’ll have your new smile!
Who Should Choose Custom Whitening Trays?
Most people looking for a whiter smile can benefit from using custom whitening trays. However, there are some people who might be a better fit than others.
Who Shouldn’t Use Custom Whitening Trays
If you have any of the following issues, you should steer clear of any type of whitening, at least until you resolve them and get approval from your dentist.
- Active tooth decay
- Active gum disease
- Tooth sensitivity
- Previous reactions to whitening products
Who Should Use Custom Whitening Trays
Custom whitening trays could be a good solution for you if you:
- Need something more affordable than in-office treatments
- Want your results to develop steadily over time
- Have crooked teeth or a snaggletooth that might cause problems for universal-fit trays
- Have sensitive gums that aren’t related to periodontal disease
Just remember that teeth whitening only works on natural teeth, so if you have veneers, crowns, bridges, or bonding, they won’t get any lighter. If you need dental work, your dentist might recommend whitening your teeth first so that they can match the shade of your restorations to your new, bright smile.
Pros and Cons of Custom Whitening Trays
Like any treatment, there are pros and cons to using custom trays to whiten your teeth. Here are some key points to consider before you commit to treatment.
- All whitening takes place within the comfort of your own home. The only required office visits are to get your molds and trays if you choose to work with a dentist.
- They’re designed to fit your mouth perfectly, maximizing whitening while reducing sensitivity and irritation.
- In many cases, you can pick from different gel strengths to get the results you want.
- In most cases, they cost less than in-office whitening — even when you purchase them from a dentist.
- Results take longer than in-office whitening.
- They’re more expensive than most other types of at-home whitening products you’ll find in stores and online.
- If you choose a stronger gel, it can cause teeth sensitivity.
How Much Do Custom Whitening Trays Cost?
Custom whitening trays are an investment in yourself. Taking the time to whiten your teeth is an act of self-care, and the results can boost your self-esteem and make you look and feel years younger. But how much will this self-care set you back?
You may be surprised at how affordable a youthful smile can be. Custom trays run between $80 and $600, depending on if you get them online or through a dentist, making them much less expensive than most in-office whitening treatments. And refill syringes — which you’ll need 1–2 times a year — often cost $20–$50, depending on the brand and gel strength. Just remember that cheaper isn’t always better.
Does Insurance Cover It?
It’s rare. Teeth whitening is a cosmetic procedure and dental insurance almost never covers treatments that are considered cosmetic. However, if you have an HSA or FSA account, you might be able to apply your funds towards your whitening treatments. Contact your account administrator to find out.
Is Financing Available?
Many dental offices offer some form of financing, whether it’s an in-office payment plan or a third-party company like CareCredit or LendingClub. Some financing companies require a credit check, so be sure to read the fine print before you apply. If you purchase your whitening trays online, you may find that the company offers their own financing plans.
What Is It Like To Use Custom Whitening Trays?
Once you’re ready to whiten your teeth, follow the instructions carefully to reduce any sensitivity and ensure an effective whitening session.
Take each tray and place a very small amount of whitening gel onto each tooth. You need a lot less than you think because the trays fit so tightly, and in this case, more gel doesn’t mean whiter teeth. Putting too much gel in your tray will make it ooze over the top and can irritate your delicate gum tissue.
How Long Does Whitening Take?
Whitening gels come in different concentrations, from 3% up to 40%, and you should follow the instructions carefully to see how long you need to leave your trays in.
Depending on the gel, you might wear your trays for 15–30 minutes, or you might need to wear them for 60+ minutes, or even overnight. If you find that your teeth are sensitive after even a brief whitening session, call your dentist.
Once you have finished each whitening session, rinse your mouth out with water — try room temperature to avoid sensitivity — and brush your teeth with water. Whitening opens microscopic pores in your teeth, which makes them more susceptible to staining immediately after a whitening session. Eating or drinking during this time can cause your teeth to stain faster, so avoid food and any drinks except water for at least an hour (preferably longer) after you whiten your teeth.
All dental procedures have some side effects, and whitening is no different. The most common are tooth sensitivity and gum irritation.
Fortunately, they’re both pretty easy to remedy. You can shorten the length of your sessions until you find a time that works for you. You can also opt for a gentler whitening gel or one made from PAP (phthalimido peroxy caproic acid), which doesn’t contain peroxide or cause sensitivity.
Another common side effect is that some patients develop white spots on their teeth. This is just tooth dehydration, and it usually goes away within a couple of hours.
How Long Does It Take to See Results?
Full results take about two weeks, but you could notice lighter teeth in just a few days with daily whitening sessions.
You can speed up results by using an LED lamp made for teeth whitening. Certain studies suggest these lights can enhance whitening power by helping the gel penetrate deeper into the enamel. Check with your dentist or the company you purchase from to see if an LED lamp can help enhance your whitening experience.
How Long Will My Results Last?
There is no guarantee on how long your results will last; it depends a lot on the system you use, your body’s natural response, and your lifestyle. Do your research on various whitening options before making your purchase to ensure it delivers lasting results.
You don’t have control over how your teeth respond to treatment but you can make lifestyle changes that prolong the lifespan of your bright smile. If you eat highly pigmented foods and drinks (think berries, red wine, and coffee), you’ll get new stains sooner. Smoking will also discolor your teeth. And if you slack on your brushing and flossing, expect duller teeth sooner.
How Do I Maintain My Results?
You may notice your teeth looking dull after a few weeks, or you might still be happy with your results months, even years, later. Fortunately, custom trays allow you to touch up anytime, anywhere, and you can reuse them once a week or once a month to maintain your sparkling smile.
Popping your trays in for a quick 20–30-minute whitening session every week or two will help your teeth stay bright without allowing too much stain to build up between touch-ups.
Custom whitening trays are truly the best of both teeth-whitening worlds. They’re highly effective — even if results take a little longer — and as convenient for on-the-go whitening as over-the-counter products.
In our modern, stressful world, treating yourself to custom whitening trays to boost your self-confidence could be just what the doctor ordered. And custom whitening trays are one of your most reliable options.
Frequently Asked Questions
What makes custom trays unique?
They are fully fitted to your unique smile. This helps the gel get into those harder-to-reach areas for more even results while keeping it off the gums, preventing chemical burns that are often a side effect of whitening.
How long will it take to see results?
Full results usually take a few weeks, but you’ll notice whiter teeth in just a few days.
What if I don’t have a dentist?
Not a problem! We suggest seeing one before whitening, but you don’t need them to get custom trays. You can get them online, and often at a much lower price.
Are there any side effects?
You may experience tooth sensitivity or gum irritation. Both are common and you can remedy them by using a weaker whitening gel concentration.
Who is an ideal candidate for custom teeth whitening?
An ideal candidate has healthy teeth and gums. Remember that veneers and crowns don’t lighten, so if you have any dental restorations, you may need to have them replaced.
Does insurance cover custom trays?
No, whitening is a cosmetic procedure, so insurance doesn’t cover it.
Are there any financing options?
Many dentists offer either payment plans or accept third-party financing. Some plans require credit checks, so be sure to read the fine print. If you go with an online retailer, check to see if they offer a financing plan if paying outright is a bit out of reach.
How long will my results last?
The time between touch-ups varies depending on your lifestyle. Your results won’t last as long if you consistently consume staining foods and beverages, smoke, or are inconsistent with your oral hygiene.