Tooth Whitening 101: How Does It Actually Work?

Where to Start When You Are Looking for Whiter Teeth

Everyone can relate to striving for whiter teeth. While you may never achieve your dream of a perfectly free-of-coffee-stains smile, you can come extremely close, thanks to the latest and greatest in tooth whitening technology. That technology includes professional treatment and also some safe at-home whitening options.

But which one is right for you? More importantly, how does it even work? It’s a dental procedure and an at-home treatment you probably hear talked about a lot, and of course we know the end result, but it’s important to know how tooth whitening actually works to decide if it’s right for you. Let’s find out how it works and look at the pros and cons of the main tooth whitening methods.

Tooth whitening 101

First things first, we need to understand how our teeth become stained in the first place. Much like the pores on our skin and how they affect our skin’s appearance, teeth have pores, too. There are two types of stains that you’ll notice: intrinsic stains that develop due to natural causes (aging, genetics, illnesses, high blood pressure), and extrinsic stains that develop on the outer layer of the teeth thanks to food, colorful beverages, and habits like smoking.

a hot cup of coffee, which may contribute to stains on the teeth
While delicious and energizing, your coffee intake may be contributing to stains on your teeth.

Spoiler alert: the stains on the outside are much easier to remove, which is great news if you are interested in a tooth whitening session!

Stains are the result of double carbon bonds that make the teeth appear darker, usually more yellow. The active ingredients used in teeth whitening products can turn this around, turning those double bonds into single bonds — that’s how your teeth become the pearly whites of your dreams (or at least appear brighter).

There are a few factors that actually determine the effectiveness and the results of your chosen tooth whitening treatment, including:

  • Hydrogen peroxide concentration (active ingredient)
  • Exposure time
  • Temperature
  • pH

These are important factors to consider. Yes, they result in a brighter smile, but it’s possible that high heat — along with all of the other factors — can cause pain and sensitivity. Consider your personal pain tolerance or existing tooth sensitivity issues.

Professional procedures

Like many dental products and procedures, professional teeth whitening services are quite an investment. We’re talking the cost, the time it takes, and the potential for repeat visits.

To put it plainly, professional whitening treatments cost hundreds of dollars. However, you will likely see significant differences — you could walk out of a one to two hour session with your teeth appearing eight shades whiter. That’s significantly whiter than with at-home treatments, but remember that prevention is just as important either way. If you are a coffee or soda lover, be careful because more stains means more expensive procedures if it’s something you are interested in keeping up with.

But how does it actually work? Most professional procedures use a bleaching solution, such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. In conjunction with a UV light or laser, after one to two hours (or once the preferred shade is reached), you’ll be walking out of the office with a whiter smile and little to no side effects. The UV light activates the bleaching agent, therefore whitening your teeth — the light does not work on its own, but it is a popular element of both in-office and at-home treatments. It’s important in speeding up the whitening process, however it’s not the best for your teeth. Weigh the pros and cons for your personal situation.

a UV light being used on teeth to speed up the whitening process
UV light helps to activate the bleach that whitens your teeth. Image courtesy of OGLF.

While these in-office procedures are often successful, just remember to be aware of your own tooth sensitivity. Avoid certain foods with a lot of pigments post-procedure — no colorful juices or candies! If all goes well, just one or a few in-office treatments could do the trick, and that reduces further risks associated with the technology.

At-home treatments

At-home treatment for whiter teeth is a safe and cost effective alternative. However, repeat “visits” are much more likely with at-home tooth whitening options.

A mouthpiece whitening treatment can be created by your dentist, tailor made just for you. This option still uses bleach, but is a little less expensive and only requires you to wear it a few nights at a time to see results. You can even pop it in for one night only if you notice a new stain — that just might get the job done! Other effective options include whitening trays or LED whitening pens.

Or, maybe you want to go the natural route! Here are some natural methods that work wonders:

  • Oil pulling
  • Brush with baking soda
  • Toothpaste with 1% hydrogen peroxide (used in many bleaching agents)
  • Eat fruits and vegetables (strawberries for the win)
  • Watch your sugar intake
  • Brush and floss daily
a handful of strawberries is a natural whitening method
It’s not a cure-all, but eating strawberries can make your teeth appear a little whiter.

Though most of these natural remedies are not scientifically proven (aside from brushing with 1% hydrogen peroxide toothpaste), they are all very safe, and you’re likely to see at least some improvement. It’s worth a try, right?

You can even go the simpler route of adding a few enhanced versions of products you already use to your oral health routine: whitening toothpaste, mouthwash, or even whitening strips. These may be longer term alternatives compared to a one time in-office procedure, but over time you may see significant improvement.

Adding such products into your routine is another great method of prevention, and maybe a little daily reminder to protect your teeth as best you can. Just remember that these costs can add up over time, too.

a tube of Sensodyne Extra Whitening Toothpaste
Not only is Sensodyne great for sensitive teeth, but this one is extra whitening. Image courtesy of Cosmopolitan.

Remember that teeth whitening methods may not work for everyone. It’s always best to consult your dentist about the best option for your personal dental needs. Contact Dr. Wakim today with any questions or concerns!

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