If you are wondering how to make your teeth whiter, there are several options to consider. Tooth whitening is a method of dental treatment that will work to bring out the natural whiter color of your teeth.
This treatment will not cause any of the essential elements of the tooth structure to be lost, as long as it is done properly, and will give you a whiter smile that you can be proud of. Even sparkling white teeth can become stained and discolored over time, making this procedure an option in later years also.
“What is Tooth Whitening?”
The term usually refers to the chemical alteration of the color/shade of the teeth. This is as opposed to professional dental cleaning which can remove staining from the surface of the enamel but not change the actual underlying tooth shade.
The treatment will not completely alter the underlying shade, but lighten and brighten your natural shade to make your smile whiter. This is a safe and reliable way of improving the appearance of your teeth, so long as the dentist ensures that you are suitable for the treatment and you follow the dentist’ s advice when using ‘at-home’ bleaching kits.
Many people are interested in making their teeth whiter, the treatment is increasing in popularity and most dentists carry out the procedure. Whitening is does not give a permanent change. The process will need to be repeated, on average, every few years to keep the brighter shade.
“What are the pros and cons of whitening my teeth”
Summary of benefits:
- Obvious cosmetic benefit of a brighter smile (so long as it doesn’t go too far!!).
- The teeth are not drilled into or weakened, as they are with veneers and crowns, for example.
- Safe and effective when done properly.
- Any shade change is not permanent. Repeat treatment will be needed after 1-5 years as the dentin returns to it’s natural shade over time. This time scale will vary from person-to-person. However teeth that have been treated will ‘re-whiten’ faster – it may only take a few days of wearing overnight trays, as opposed to a few weeks, to see a difference again.
- Cost. Always a drawback!
- Sensitivity. Many patients will experience some degree of sensitivity to hot/cold food and drink for a short time after the procedure. However this will go away after treatment is finished with no long-lasting effects.
- Fillings, crowns etc. will not change color. Therefore these may become obvious if the surrounding teeth are made brighter, and may need replaced to “match in” again.
Who can Benefit?
Anyone who wants a whiter smile and is deemed suitable for the treatment! Many people may benefit. Some people have naturally yellow teeth that they may not be happy with. The dentition tends to get yellower with age. Such people may find bleaching will make their smile much better cosmetically.
Smokers will also find that their teeth will stain and yellow over time.
Intrinsic discoloring is when the underlying enamel and dentin shade is affected, rather than stains on the surface. Causes include tetracycline use or excess fluoride at a young age, nerve damage and genetic disorders. Where intrinsic staining has affected things, bleaching is often the first choice treatment.
“How Much Whiter Will My Smile Get?”
This will vary between different people. Some will get a great improvement quickly, while others will achieve a more subtly brighter shade. About 10% of people will see very little or no change.
Responses to treatment in terms of how much whiter teeth will look will depend on:
- Level of discoloration beforehand.
- Length of treatment (for at-home whitening).
- Number of treatments (for ‘in-office’ procedures).
- Type of discoloration. For example those darkened by tetracycline are difficult to treat with this procedure.
- Remember that crowns, fillings and bridges etc. will not change shade afterwards
“Are My Teeth Suitable?”
It is important to check with a dental professional before you might waste your money on any over-the-counter whitening kits. If you:
- Have a lot of fillings, crowns or bridges (especially at the your front of your mouth) then you may not benefit from bleaching. Alternatively – if you do go ahead, you may need any dental work (which is visible when you smile) replaced to match with the new shade. Your dentist will advise you on any possibility of this before any treatment is carried out.
- Are unhappy with the ‘shape’ of your smile (rather than the color alone), then whitening alone will not be enough to give you a winning smile. Speak to your dentist about other options that may include orthodontic work, dental bonding, veneers or crowns.
- Have severe tetracycline staining, bleaching may not give a satisfactory treatment. Some other treatment such as veneers or crowns may be better.
- Have any cavities or gum problems; these will need treated first.
Pregnant women are advised to avoid bleaching products.
You will need a full dental check-up before undertaking any whitening. This is important not only to determine your suitability in terms of the predicted results, but also to diagnose any cavities or gum disease.
Your dentist will advise you on what type of treatment s/he will use and any side effects expected.
- Cavities must be treated beforehand. If this is not done the bleach may seep into the tooth and potentially damage the nerve.
- Gum disease is best treated before the procedure, to prevent damage to the structures that hold the teeth in place, and to reduce sensitivity during treatment.
- Your dentist will advise you if any dental work will need replaced afterward to match in with the new shade.
- They will take a note of the current color of your smile before treatment.
- The teeth will be professionally cleaned prior to treatment commencing.
Your Options For Whitening
There are two main types of bleaching. These are often used in combination. They are:
- In-office whitening, sometimes termed laser- or power-whitening. This takes place in the dental surgery/office.
- Home whitening kits.
Both types use a bleaching process to whiten the teeth.
A peroxide-based bleaching product (usually carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide) of varying strength (3%-30% peroxide) is used. The higher strength peroxide is more potent, but must be used more carefully as it carries more risks of harming the mouth.
Combining the two treatments is often ideal, as this gives the immediate results of the in-office work combined with the longer-lasting results from home-whitening.
This takes place in the dental surgery/office. A gel containing strong bleach is applied to the enamel and a light or laser may be directed onto this gel to help activate the bleaching. The strong gel results in much quicker brightening. Some evidence suggests the light/laser is not important so your own dentist may not use this. This procedure takes about an hour. Several repeated treatments may be needed depending on the type of whitening being undertaken and the degree of discoloration of the teeth.
The procedure itself involves the dentist protecting the gums by applying a protective gel over them. The bleaching product is then applied to the enamel. The light/laser, if used, is then shone onto the product. After about fifteen minutes the product is washed off. This process is repeated three times in total. The protective gel is then removed from the gums and the treatment is finished. The dentist will note the shade of your smile. This will often be markedly brighter than before treatment.
While the treatment gives instant results, this change may not be stable. So home kits are usually also provided, to use for a few weeks. This will make your smile whiter for a more prolonged period of time.
For this, your dentist first makes trays that accurately fit your teeth. To do this, molds are first taken by the dentist. It is important that the produced trays accurately fit, to ensure the best result and protect the gums. These trays will hold the gel that progressively bleaches the enamel and dentin.
The length of time that the trays must be worn each day will depend on the product used. However many people find it convenient to keep the trays in overnight. Results are gradual and the more days the trays are used, the whiter your smile will be at the end. The process is repeated every day, usually for between 1-3 weeks. The duration needed varies with the severity of discoloration as well as the desired end level of brightening.
How to make your teeth whiter over-the-counter? These stock kits offer a cheaper alternative to professional whitening.
However!!! Note these words of caution:
- Before using such products, always check with your dentist to ensure that your teeth are suitable. Otherwise at best you may be wasting your money and at worst you may harm your mouth.
- Some kits are simply too weak to make any difference. Others are dangerously strong. Caution is always advised when buying such products online.
- Such kits may use strips that stick (sometimes very poorly) to the teeth. Other kits allow you to make your own trays that hold the bleaching gel. These trays will not fit as well as those made professionally.
These toothpastes may seem as a cheap way of improving your smile. However most ‘whitening toothpaste’ products will not actually change the shade of your teeth. They contain abrasives that help remove staining from the surface of enamel. They may therefore be of benefit in those who gather stains easily.
Ask your dentist if you would benefit from such a toothpaste.
Whitening a Single Dark Tooth
A tooth that is ‘dead’ (click here for more info) and has had root canal treatment can also be chemically brightened. This process is termed “Non-Vital Whitening“. With a tooth darkened after nerve damage, normal bleaching cannot get far enough into the tooth to make a difference.
Here the dentist must place a whitening product into the inner part of the tooth, cover over it and leave it for a few days. This process may need to be repeated several times. This treatment is an excellent choice in teeth that are dark but otherwise sound, as no drilling etc. is needed – so the tooth retains its strength.
Side-effects of Tooth Whitening
When carried out properly, this procedure is safe. But it does carry some potential short-term side-effects.
The main side-effect with the professional process is sensitivity. Many patients report at least a slight degree of sensitivity to hot and cold while the treatment is on-going. For a small percentage of patients, this sensitivity can be severe. The exact reason for this sensitivity is unknown, but it is proven that the bleach does not harm the teeth if used properly.
Any sensitivity that occurs will usually be gone within 48 hours after the end of treatment. Your dentist can recommend products to help relieve the sensitivity. One good trick is to apply ‘sensitive’ toothpaste to your bleaching trays and wear these for twenty minutes. This will help soothe things. Obviously, extremes of heat and cold should be avoided. It may also help to use a ‘sensitive’ toothpaste regularly for the two weeks prior to beginning any brightening process.
Another possible side-effect is minor gum irritation. Again this is usually minor and temporary only. Some horror stories have been reported in the press with stock kits bought over the internet. There are also reports of harm being done with tooth bleaching being carried out by non-dental professionals, e.g. in beauty parlors. Extensive gum damage is possible with strong concentrations of bleach in the wrong hands!
Maintaining the Whitening
“Now I’ve gotten whiter teeth, how do I maintain the effect?”
Good oral hygiene will help maintain the new shade. This applies whether you have had this process done or not.
- Brush twice daily with fluoride toothpaste.
- Clean between your teeth with floss or another inter-dental cleaner.
- Keep sugary and acidic foods to a minimum, especially between meals. Rinse your mouth after these.
- Attend your dentist for regular check-ups.
Specific advice to prevent build up of stains includes:
- Stop smoking, or at least cut down.
- Reduce the amount of staining foods and drinks. These include coffee, tea and red wine.
How Long Does the Effect Last?
It is important to remember this does not give a permanent change. The process will need to be repeated, on average, every few years to keep the shade brighter. The exact duration of the effect will vary from one person to another. Staining can build up very quickly to cover over the new whiter color.
Follow the advice above and that of your dentist to reduce this. Once teeth have been whitened however, they tend to ‘re-whiten’ more readily. Therefore if you have an at-home kit, this can be worn for a few nights every year or so. This alone may be enough to keep the smile whiter. Alternatively you may prefer to have the effect ‘topped- up’ at the dentists.
Teeth Whitening Cost
Like most treatment, this will vary widely. The variations will be due to:
- The type of process carried out.
- The amount needed, e.g. more may be needed if your smile is very dark.
- The location of the dentist.
- The specific system used to whiten.
If you are wondering how to make your teeth whiter, there are various options available. These include:
- Professional whitening in the dental office.
- Professional at-home kits.
- Over-the-counter kits.
However you proceed, always seek the advice of your dentist before embarking on any procedure. Your dentist can inform you if you can benefit from the treatment and also check that your teeth and gums are healthy enough for whitening.