The Best Ways to Whiten Teeth

In This Article:

Healthy white teeth are practically a universal sign of looking younger and attractive, both for men and for women, so it should come as no surprise that there is a wide selection of products and treatments claiming to instantly whiten your teeth. We've sifted through the latest research to find out what works and what doesn't so you can uncover your whitest smile, safely!
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Why Is It So Hard to Have White Teeth?

  • Coffee, tea, red wine, and deep-colored berries repeatedly stain your teeth. Avoiding these offenders or brushing your teeth immediately after consuming them helps, but who wants to do that? Tip: Try sipping beverages like coffee through a straw to cut down on staining and consider eating such fruits as apples, red grapes, and oranges that don't stain teeth.
  • Genetics. Some people have teeth with a yellowish or off-white appearance, just because those are the genes they got from their parents. Fortunately, most genetically discolored teeth are still treatable!
  • Aging. Years of untreated stain accumulation results in darkened, discolored teeth. In addition, the enamel wears down over time, exposing the dentin beneath, which typically is more yellow in color than the enamel. Tip: Ask your dentist for special enamel-building toothpaste; it can make a world of difference for your smile and the health of your teeth.
  • Smoking and chewing tobacco. These are perhaps the worst offenders of all. Tobacco not only discolors teeth and kills healthy gum tissue, but also poses a serious risk to your overall health and well-being. Giving up tobacco will undoubtedly help your smile, your skin, and your overall health (but you already knew that, right?).

What Works and What Doesn't?

One of the most important things you need to know is that the teeth whiteners available from your local drugstore or online can give you the same results that you'll get from the expensive treatments at your dentist's office, and at a fraction of the cost! Check out our tips below so you can get great results getting a healthier, brighter smile!

  • Whitening Toothpaste and Mouthwash

    Serious staining and discoloration cannot be corrected with toothpaste or mouthwash, no matter what the whitening claims on the label say. FDA regulations allow any product that cleans the surface of teeth to be labeled as "whitening," so any manufacturer can legally state that their toothpaste or mouthwash whitens teeth, when in fact all it does is clean them. Of course, cleaning is helpful, but it doesn't change the actual color of your teeth.

  • Routine Cleanings

    If the yellow or dull color of your teeth is from tartar buildup, getting your teeth professionally cleaned regularly will help. But, just like brushing your teeth, this type of dental care, although necessary, and well-advised, can take you only so far. Tip: Invest in an electric toothbrush (from Sonicare, Oral-B, and others) to prevent tartar or plaque buildup between cleanings, and don't forget to floss at least once a day.

  • Professional Whitening Procedures

    Some dentists would have you believe that only they offer effective solutions for teeth whitening, but that just isn't true. In-office teeth-whitening procedures do provide fast and impressive results, but on average they cost $650 per visit! So, yes, it is true that dentist-administered teeth-whitening treatments can speed up the whitening results, because they use a higher concentration of active ingredients; however, the higher concentration also increases the risk of intense, painful sensitivity. It's up to you to decide: Are the quicker results worth the potential sensitivity, which can last for days and even weeks after the procedure?

  • Professionally Sold Home Treatments

    Some dentists also sell $100–$300 at-home kits that you can buy only from them. Compare that with the virtually identical and equally effective $20–$100 teeth-whitening kits available at the drugstore, and it's easy to see why some dentists might want you to believe they are the only option!

  • Light-Activated Whitening Methods

    While some studies point to the greater effectiveness of light-activated whitening methods versus the non-light-activated systems, there is still much debate on this issue, with conflicting results. Regardless of efficacy, many dentists believe that the risk of tooth sensitivity is too great with light-activated whitening methods.

  • Over-the-Counter Whiteners

    Inexpensive teeth "whitening," "lightening," or "bleaching" products in the form of strips, liquids, sticks, or gels really are effective. All of them contain the same active ingredients (either carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide) to achieve results, so which one you choose is strictly about your personal preference. These products can absolutely take your smile from drab to dazzling--and they can do it faster than you think!

How Do Over-the-Counter Whiteners Work?

  • All teeth whiteners contain either carbamide peroxide (CP) or hydrogen peroxide (HP).
  • The concentration and which active ingredient you choose, as well as the duration of exposure time, determines how fast you see improvement (typically 1–14 days).
  • Hydrogen peroxide is the stronger of the two ingredients. A 10% solution of HP is about three times as strong as a 10% solution of CP.
  • When shopping for teeth-whitening products, keep these numbers in mind to gauge the potential effectiveness:
    • 3% HP equals about 10% CP
    • 6% HP equals about 20% CP
    • 9% HP equals about 30% CP

Which Over-the-Counter Method is the Best?

Almost all whiteners are effective if they contain the active ingredients HP or CP and a high enough concentration (explained above). The differences are in the delivery systems and the application methods, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Deciding which to use depends on your personal preference.

  • Whitening Strips:
    • Pros: Mess-free and convenient! The strip's ability to bind the active ingredients to teeth make this a brilliant option.
    • Cons: Some people find that the strips slip off their teeth or don't cover enough of their smile zone.
  • Bleach Trays:
    • Pros: The tray holds the bleaching gel in contact with teeth for extended periods of time, resulting in a fabulously white smile.
    • Cons: Some people find dental trays uncomfortable.
  • Paint-on Liquids:
    • Pros: Ideal for spot-treating stubborn stains, or targeting specific trouble spots.
    • Cons: Due to their liquid texture, some paint-on whitening liquids do not stay on the teeth for the recommended amount of time. They also require more effort and time to cover each tooth surface evenly.
  • Whitening Sticks:
    • Pros: Unlike paint-on liquids, balm-like whitening sticks emulsify with saliva to provide even coverage and whitening results. Paula's Choice offers a unique teeth whitener, with an encapsulated whitening agent to improve efficacy and minimize the risk of sensitivity. This is great for anyone who doesn't want to devote a lot of time (and money) to their whitening routine, but still wants to see great results.
    • Cons: It can be difficult to determine how much balm has been applied. However, with continued use, most people who use whitening sticks get the hang of it!

Proceed with Caution

Is a brighter smile worth it? The Paula's Choice Research Team thinks so, but you must be aware of the following risks:

  • No pain, no gain: While we hope it's not the case for you, the truth is that teeth whiteners do pose a risk of tooth and/or gum sensitivity. The higher the concentration of the active ingredient, the more likely you are to experience discomfort or pain. Tip: Using a desensitizing toothpaste that contains potassium nitrate to reduce sensitivity can really make a difference.
  • Be careful if you have dental composites:Whitening agents can adversely affect the smoothness of a composite restoration, which makes the composite more susceptible to future discoloration.
  • Uneven color: Whiteners work only on natural teeth, so if you have dental crowns, porcelain veneers, bonding material, and so on, you may end up with multi-colored teeth.
  • Grey teeth: Teeth whiteners do not work very well, if at all, on teeth that are naturally grey. It may still be worth trying a teeth whitener to see how it works for you, but be aware that it might not work the way you want it to.
  • Expiration date: Keep in mind that bleaching products have a short shelf-life, so check the expiration date before purchasing.

As with most things in the world of cosmetics, expensive doesn't necessarily mean better, and that applies to teeth whiteners as well. No matter which option you choose, taking your teeth from yellow to white can improve your self-confidence and help you feel younger and more attractive. Here's to a whiter, brighter smile!

Sources: European Journal of Dentistry, April 2010, pages 118–127; Minerva Stomatologica, April 2009, pages 181–185; Operative Dentistry, July-August 2008, pages 379–385; Dental Materials, May 2007, pages 586–596; Journal of Dentistry, February 2008, pages 117–124; Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews, October 18, 2006, CD006202; Journal of Contemporary Dental Practices, February 2004; pages 1–17; Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, June 2003, pages 461–464; Journal of Clinical Dentistry, 2002, volume 13, number, pages 91–94; and Journal of Esthetic and Restorative Dentistry, 2001, volume 13.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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