9 Teeth Whitening Methods: Charcoal, Kits, Toothpaste, Professional & More

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teeth whitening

In the era of selfies and social media, we all want to look our best. Often, that starts with teeth whitening, the most popular form of cosmetic dentistry.

Teeth whitening is cheaper and more accessible every year. The more popular it gets, the more money there is to be made. Sadly, this has resulted in many harmful whitening methods, products, and scams that fool or hurt consumers.

Fortunately, there are also many breakthroughs in dental technology that allow you to have a brighter smile in just a few sessions.

Estimates for the size of the whitening industry range from $5-15 billion dollars each year. That means there’s a lot of money to be had from those selling whitening products. Some of them, like Crest Whitestrips, don’t work consistently and/or expose your sensitive gums to dangerous chemicals, so it’s vital to know what you’re getting into before whitening your teeth.

Whether you’re interested in how to whiten your teeth at home or what it’s like to get a whitening procedure done at the dentist’s office, I’ll break it all down.

I want to make sure you understand the ins and outs of this process before jumping in. After all, you only get one set of teeth in life, and it’s all too easy to damage them permanently.

By the end of this post, you’ll know:

  • Why teeth turn yellow or grayish over time
  • How whitening actually works (including the difference between removing stains and bleaching your teeth)
  • What’s safe and what’s not when it comes to teeth whitening
  • How to spot a whitening scam
  • How to whiten teeth most effectively
  • The safest way to whiten your teeth

Already know which part of whitening you want to understand better? Use the table of contents above to navigate to the section you’re looking for.

Disclosure:
Ask the Dentist is supported by readers. If you use one of the links below and buy something, Ask the Dentist makes a little bit of money at no additional cost to you. I rigorously research, test, and use thousands of products every year, but recommend only a small fraction of these. I only promote products that I truly feel will be valuable to you in improving your oral health.

How Teeth Become Discolored

Before we talk about how to whiten teeth, I want to share the common factors that cause teeth to turn yellow.

Teeth yellowing is a normal part of aging.

As our hair turns gray, our teeth turn yellow simultaneously. And it’s the inner part of the tooth called dentin—not the enamel rods which are first to be impacted by external factors—that yellows.

Over time, your new dentin appears darker, while the enamel is thinner due to wear, grinding, or exposure to acidic foods and drinks (coffee, red wine, etc.). The discolored dentin then reflects through the enamel like a prism, making the tooth look yellower.

Besides aging, tooth discoloration may occur due to many factors. Examples of intrinsic staining (discoloration of the dentin) include:

  • Taking tetracycline, a powerful antibiotic, before age 10
  • Falling on or hitting a tooth
  • Being exposed to too much fluoride during childhood (also called fluorosis)
  • A rare dental disorder called amelogenesis imperfecta (AI) which makes the teeth yellow or brown
  • Amalgam/mercury fillings
  • Genetics, which determine the color of your teeth from birth
  • Cavities (which tend to make teeth grayish rather than yellow)
  • Orthodontic lesions after the removal of metal braces

Tooth enamel can also become stained, which is considered extrinsic (outside) of the dentin. Examples of extrinsic staining are:

  • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Drinking tea, coffee, or red wine, which contain tannins that stain teeth
  • Eating staining foods without following that with good oral hygiene
  • Using mouthwash with chlorhexidine

This does not affect the inner color of the teeth, and can be remedied with a good stain-removing toothbrush and toothpaste.

Excessive staining can also be corrected by a whitening treatment, but this isn’t always necessary.

How Teeth Whitening Works

Teeth whitening works by actually changing the color of the inside of the teeth (known as intrinsic whitening), or removing stains from the outside of the teeth (known as extrinsic whitening).

Intrinsic Whitening

“Intrinsic whitening” refers to whitening the dentin, or inner part of the tooth, which soaks up hydrogen peroxide gel (also called whitening gel or bleach) and becomes lighter.

When peroxide is used to whiten teeth, it produces free radicals which then bind to the darkest pigments in the spaces between enamel cones. The free radicals physically shrink the pigment molecules, which reduces the darkness of the pigment. In addition, making the pigments smaller means they also reflect less light.

This process dehydrates teeth. They’re rehydrated as you eat and drink over the subsequent days. That’s why it’s important to be cautious about what you consume immediately after whitening your teeth.

By protecting your teeth from premature or accelerated aging, you can prevent internal discoloration from getting worse. Simple lifestyle changes like staying better hydrated can prevent acid wear (plus, hydration corrects dry mouth, which reduces your risk of cavities!).

When the inner part of the tooth is whitened, the color that’s reflected through the outer enamel of your teeth is lighter, making the tooth look whiter and brighter, overall.

Changes during intrinsic whitening occur in both the dentin layer and enamel rods but in different ways.

Extrinsic Whitening

Removing staining on enamel (the outer part of the tooth) is called “extrinsic whitening.”

The stains left behind by smoking or drinking red wine, tea, or coffee are usually easily removed with a polish by your hygienist at a teeth cleaning or with polishing and whitening toothpaste.

When you remove stains, you’re simply exposing the color of the dentin by clearing enamel of stains. This can make teeth appear whiter, but it doesn’t physically change tooth color.

Charcoal toothpaste is one of the most popular methods of oral hygiene to remove stains from your teeth. However, it’s not the only option.

I’ll cover the best teeth whitening methods below… But what’s the best way to whiten teeth for you?

What is the best whitener for your teeth?

If you have extrinsic discoloration/staining, start by trying a stain-removing toothpaste for a couple of weeks. Going for a stain-removing electric toothbrush can make a big difference here, too. Staining can also be removed during a professional teeth cleaning.

If you have intrinsic yellowing, no amount of stain-removing toothpaste can lighten the inner color of the tooth. You’ll need to whiten your teeth using a bleaching gel that is held up against the teeth (but don’t run out to buy whitening strips quite yet!).

If your teeth are grayish, rather than yellow, bleaching won’t do much. You’ll need to seek out methods to correct the graying, which may include restorations on cavities. For graying you can’t fix otherwise, you may want to invest in bonded teeth or veneers.

Before You Try Teeth Whitening: Common Myths & Misconceptions

Start with healthy teeth.

You can’t remodel the kitchen with dry rot in the floorboards.

Whitening your teeth when you have gum disease, exposed roots, cavities, crooked teeth, gum recession, or other untreated issues can cause further pain and problems.

Plus, you’ll have wasted your time and money, since the whitening likely won’t take on damaged teeth.

An ethical dentist will tell you this and not take your money before fixing any dental problems first.

Be prepared for tooth sensitivity.

One common side effect of teeth whitening is sensitive teeth in the 24 hours after your teeth have been exposed to whitening gel. You can take a pain reliever like ibuprofen if the sensitivity is too much to bear.

Whitening isn’t a one-time thing and won’t last forever.

Teeth are always yellowing as part of the aging process.

They’re also always becoming stained by the foods and drinks we consume. No matter where or how you whiten your teeth, it won’t last forever.

Most teeth whitening results last from 6 months up to 2 years. The length of time depends on how easily your teeth stain, as well as your diet and lifestyle.

There’s also a rebound effect from teeth whitening, where teeth will relapse slightly in shade. You may be whitening your teeth and stop at a certain point once you’re happy with the results, but I would recommend going a bit beyond that because of the rebound effect.

A study estimates that up to 50 percent of the effectiveness of bleaching products at a dental office may rebound within just a week. This is particularly true when you eat or drink staining foods or drinks in the first seven days.

One size does not fit all.

Custom trays help ensure that bleach stays where it’s intended—not on your gums, where bleaching gel causes free radical reactions and damages them.

Since everyone’s smile is different, we shouldn’t all be using the same size tray to whiten our teeth. This is why I recommend the custom whitening trays available from your dentist rather than one-size-fits-all whitening strips or non-custom trays.

Whitening gel must be kept away from soft tissue.

A common side effect of teeth whitening is soft tissue irritation. This usually happens when the whitening solution gets on the gums.

You might ingest a bit of the gel in take-home whitening kits, which can cause nausea or vomiting. Be cautious to spit out any gel on your teeth.

Results vary.

The results you get from teeth whitening depend on what your teeth were like when you started.

Some people think whitening erases all the damage they’ve done to their teeth over their lifetimes, but the opposite is true: The better you’ve cared for your teeth, the greater the results.

The more you’ve maintained regular dental appointments, brushed and flossed regularly, and avoided damage and discoloration, the whiter your teeth will appear after a teeth whitening service.

You can overdo it.

Over-whitening—from using too much whitening gel or reapplying too often—can permanently damage teeth. Over-whitening can also make teeth look translucent or discolored, which can’t be fixed without replacing the tooth completely. This translucence can make teeth grayish in color.

Don’t worry about having the whitest smile you can get. Not only can this actually age your teeth faster (and make yellowing worse), white teeth aren’t actually indicative of a healthy smile.

Teeth whitening can be safe—when done as recommended.

For the most part, teeth whitening is safe—as long as it’s done correctly. What most people don’t realize before having their teeth whitened is this: because you’re dealing with live tissue (unlike hair or nails), teeth whitening can cause damage, pain, and sensitivity.

The safest way to use a whitening agent like peroxide is to have a custom tray created by your dentist, then use gel refills to freshen your tooth color every 24-48 months.

I’ll cover these in detail below, but there are several methods of teeth whitening I do not recommend because of safety concerns.

9 Teeth Whitening Methods: Pros, Risks, & Costs

There are many different ways to whiten teeth, whether at the dentist or in the comfort of your own home. Here’s a breakdown of the options for a professional effect.

1. Whitening Toothpaste

The name “whitening toothpaste” is a bit misleading. Toothpaste can only lighten your teeth superficially by removing stains—and this is only accomplished by being more abrasive than regular toothpaste. In reality, all toothpastes actually remove some surface stains because of their abrasiveness.

Whitening toothpaste can remove staining on your teeth, but it cannot change the internal color of your teeth.

The best teeth whitening kit is actually an excellent stain-removing toothbrush like the Goby brush. Use a Goby along with a stain-removing toothpaste like Jason Powersmile, which uses baking soda and is free of SLS, which can cause canker sores.

Charcoal toothpastes, such as Hyperbiotics, are also great options for removing surface stains. Bonus: charcoal toothpastes can be used over the long term, as long as they’re manufactured to be low on the abrasivity scale.

I even have a great recipe for a homemade charcoal toothpaste that you can find here.

COST: $5-30 per tube

Pros: Whitening toothpaste is great for removing staining, but don’t use it for more than a few weeks at a time in order to protect your teeth and gums.

Risks: Whitening toothpaste may cause sensitivity, be too abrasive on the teeth, and lead to gum recession. Use it sparingly (as mentioned above), and brush gently, with proper technique, while regularly checking in with your dentist to make sure you’re not committing any lasting damage.

Some whitening toothpastes contain hydrogen peroxide to accelerate whitening. There are some reports that hydrogen peroxide can increase your risk of oral cancer. However, at concentrations found in toothpastes (specifically, under 3.6%), it’s unlikely to be carcinogenic when used in moderation.

Because of the high abrasivity of many over-the-counter whitening toothpastes, you run the risk of creating small abrasions on your teeth. These make space for bacteria and lead to increased risk for cavities over time. Check the relative dentin abrasivity of your toothpaste to find out if you’re at a high risk for abrasions.

2. Professional Teeth Whitening at the Dentist

If you choose to have your teeth whitened by your dentist, you’ll come into the office for a few 30-60 minute-long sessions. During each session, a high concentration of peroxide (20-43%) will be “painted” onto the teeth. A polymerization light is used to harden the gel, and it’s reapplied several times over the session.

Although hydrogen peroxide can be used, carbamide peroxide is considered the industry standard because it has a much longer shelf life.

Some dentists will finish by using a UV light to accelerate the chemical reaction and the whitening process. You may also be offered the option to do just one 2-hour session, which will always include UV light.

COST: $650-1250 for each 60-minute session, depending on your region

Pros: If you need your teeth to be whitened in just one day, this is a good option because it’s fast. Theoretically, since the dentist is present, you reduce the risk of damage to your teeth and gums. The whitening effect is strongest the 24-48 hours after this process.

Risks: I’m not a fan of the light systems commonly used, like the Zoom whitening system. At best, they’re safe, but they won’t come close to achieving the results of custom trays or whitestrips. At worst, accelerating the chemical reaction damages the tooth. This can lead to premature aging and yellowing and may require future dental work if the tooth dies prematurely.

In clinical trials, using UV light doesn’t result in better whitening results when high concentrations of peroxide (25% or more) are used in professional whitening. In fact, light treatment results in worse sensitive teeth and the entire effectiveness of the treatment rebounds quickly.

3. Custom Whitening Trays

The best, longest-lasting, most sustainable way to whiten your teeth is with custom whitening trays, which are made by your dentist after taking impressions of your teeth.

Your dentist will take impressions during one visit, then check the fit of the tray on another visit. You take the tray home and can keep it indefinitely, as long as your teeth stay in the same place, and simply purchase whitening gel to use at home.

After peroxide gel is squirted into the trays, place the tray in your mouth to cover your teeth. The trays keep the whitening gel in place, surrounding all surfaces of the teeth while keeping the gel away from the gums, where it can cause harm.

Add a peroxide gel (my favorites are Opalesence and Venus White) to the trays and wear them for 1-3 hours. Some people keep them on overnight, but this isn’t necessary and may result in sensitivity.

The gel keeps in the fridge (out of direct sunlight), and you can pop in your trays anytime you need to. Take care of a whitening tray like you would a retainer, night guard, or any oral appliance—store it in water with baking soda to keep them moist. (Find more details here.)

Most people achieve the results they want within 2-3 weeks of daily use, although it may take 6-8 weeks for more stubborn yellowing. I recommend sessions no more than once a year

Because you won’t be under professional supervision, don’t purchase over-the-counter gels above 10% concentration to use at home.

More than this, and you run a very high chance of tooth sensitivity. One study estimates over 70% of people using higher concentrations of bleaching gel at home struggled with sensitivity or pain, versus only 15% of people using a very high concentration (38%) while supervised by a dentist.

COST: $250-500 for custom tray, depending on location / $20-40 for peroxide gel refills

Pros: Custom whitening trays provide the best results in the most cost-effective way. It costs about $250-500 to get your first custom tray, but the gel only costs between $20-40 per tube and works better than whitening strips.

Risks: If you use a teeth whitening gel that’s too strong and/or you leave your trays in for too long, you risk allowing the peroxide to penetrate too deep into the tooth. This can result in damage of the pulp (the next layer inside the tooth, inside dentin).

Children are especially at risk of damage from whitening trays because they have larger areas of pulp relative to the size of their growing teeth. Damage of the tissue can cause the death of the tooth, tooth pain, or sensitivity.

4. Whitening Strips

Whitening strips are small pieces of a flexible plastic called polyethylene. Each flexible strip is coated with a whitening gel that contains hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, which are both effective teeth whiteners.

To use these products, like Crest Whitestrips, each strip is molded around the teeth—one strip for the top and one for the bottom. This ensures that the peroxide gel in the strips is held up against the teeth so it can seep into the teeth to lighten them.

Whitening strips can be dangerous because they are not custom-fit, so the whitening chemicals come into contact with the gums and other tissues in the mouth.

When whitening strips touch other live tissue, they cause free radical reactions—the same reactions that speed up the aging process.

Whitestrips also tend to provide uneven results. Since strips are 2-D, they do a poor job of getting into the curves in between teeth, which can make your teeth look whiter on their flat surfaces, but yellower at the edges. If you have crooked teeth, even results will be hard—if not impossible—to achieve.

One important note: the whitening gel from strips can cause excruciating pain if it enters a cavity that hasn’t been addressed because of infrequent dental appointments. That means if you haven’t been to the dentist recently, you should stay away from these whitestrips.

There’s also conflicting research about the relationship of hydrogen peroxide to oral cancer. While peroxides are used in whitening trays, too, the gel should never touch gums and it’s much easier to avoid contact of the gel with other surfaces of your mouth.

COST: $13-60, depending on strength and brand

Pros: Whitening strips are readily available at drugstores and on Amazon; they’re easy to use; and they can generally create results within a few days or weeks.

Several varieties of Crest Whitening Strips are approved by the American Dental Association (ADA).

Risks: Using whitening strips can lead to damage to gums, tooth sensitivity, and uneven teeth whitening. There may be danger of increasing your risk of oral cancer if you use peroxide teeth whitening products like whitening strips on a regular basis and allow the strips to touch your gums.

As a less toxic alternative to Crest Whitening Strips, try Lumineux’s peroxide-free strips. They use natural ingredients to gently remove stains, and while the results won’t be as drastic, they don’t care any of the same risks listed above.

5. Baking Soda

An easy home remedy for stain removal, baking soda is another option you may want to try. While the results aren’t as clearly proven as many other methods, it’s totally non-toxic.

Research indicates that toothpastes that contain baking soda remove stains from yellowing teeth more effectively than other pastes. And the higher the concentration of baking soda, the better the results seem to be.

While you can look for toothpastes that include baking soda, the easiest way to implement this is to mix 2 teaspoons of water with a teaspoon of it. Then, dip your brush in the mixture and get to brushing.

COST: $1-$30, depending on the brand of baking soda

Pros: Baking soda is easy to purchase, inexpensive, and non-toxic to the mouth. And, contrary to popular belief, baking soda is not abrasive and won’t scratch teeth. In fact, most over-the-counter whitening toothpastes are multiple times more abrasive than baking soda!

Risks: Of all whitening methods, this is probably the one backed by the least evidence. Results here will be minimal and much less noticeable than actual bleaching.

6. Oil Pulling

This popular oral hygiene technique is one I implement regularly. Oil pulling is a great way to balance the oral microbiome and reduce inflammation of bleeding gums/gingivitis.

While some claim that this whitening technique is one of the most effective, non-peroxide ways to whiten teeth, that’s a bit of a myth. Coconut oil does have the ability to bind to bacteria on the teeth and, therefore, remove some surface stains. But it will not “whiten” teeth anymore than swishing your mouth regularly with water.

However, since oil pulling is so good for oral hygiene in general, I include it on this list as a combo method of stain removal and stain prevention.

COST: $3-18, depending on the brand of coconut oil

Pros: Oil pulling is great for the oral microbiome and can help reduce bad breath and remove some minor staining. There are no time limits on how often or how long you can oil pull, since it’s non-toxic.

Cons: Coconut, sesame, and other oils used in oil pulling don’t actually “whiten” teeth, although they can help with stains. This method is a useful one to add to your dental hygiene routine, but don’t expect major results as far as whiter teeth are concerned.

7. ZOOM/UV Light/Halogen/LED/Laser Whitening

Studies have shown that lights do not work to lighten teeth when used alongside high peroxide concentrations—whether they’re lasers, LED, or halogen. At worst, these machines can actually kill teeth by devitalizing the nerve.

You’ve probably seen these types of teeth whitening companies stationed at kiosks at the mall. It’s important to point out that the staff running these kiosks often have no healthcare training and no license. Yet, they are dispensing chemicals that could permanently damage your teeth and gums.

Companies such as these get around any legal constraints by having consumers themselves place the whitening tray into their mouths. This means that, under the law, they haven’t technically performed a dental procedure.

This also means that the technicians do not have the appropriate training, nor can you follow-up with them if there are issues after the procedure, like tooth sensitivity or gum damage.

Other teeth whitening kits like HiSmile provide a light that’s supposed to increase the amount teeth are whitened by bleach. Interestingly, when used with lower concentrations of bleach (5-15%), these lights may, indeed, help speed the whitening process.

However, they still heat the pulp during application. This might not result in noticeable damage right away, but I’m hesitant to recommend these to patients.

COST: $100-1000 per application, depending on location

Pros: These whitening methods may be drastically cheaper than going to a dental office. It’s possible that, when using at-home bleaching products, light activation may produce marginally faster results.

Some new products use LED and/or red light whitening systems in conjunction with non-bleach products, like activated charcoal. While there isn’t a lot of evidence on the effectiveness of these, they would not be associated with the same sensitivity issues as lights with bleach. The available evidence tells us that blue-spectrum light with very little UV is likely best.

Risks: As I stated, kiosks where these types of services are offered aren’t overseen by dental professionals, although they’re using peroxide gel concentrations as high as a dentist would. If you haven’t checked with your dentist about whether or not whitening is right for you, you could be damaging your teeth unnecessarily.

Light-based whitening with peroxide is also associated with a huge rebound effect, which means that the drastic effects don’t last once teeth are rehydrated in the days after the procedure. These methods cause sensitive teeth and are unlikely to be effective after the first week has passed.

8. Whitening Mouthwash / Peroxide Mouth Rinses

A mouthwash might contain the right whitening ingredient, but it’s not going to whiten your teeth.

Bleach (peroxide) needs to be held up against the tooth for several minutes or more to seep into the inner part of the tooth and produce a color change. This can only be accomplished if it’s done daily for a few weeks.

Even though the hydrogen peroxide in mouthwash isn’t effective in whitening teeth, there’s still enough of it to impact the inside of the mouth. Every time you rinse, you’re exposing the sensitive inner tissues of your mouth and gums to bleach, potentially causing harm.

Other mouth rinses use activated charcoal, which can bind to some staining compounds in tooth enamel when used in toothpaste. Again, this is probably not going to result in much of a major change to the actual color of your teeth.

COST: $4-12, depending on the brand or DIY recipe

Pros: None.

Risks: These mouthwashes may lead to irritation of the gums and soft tissue of the mouth and are unlikely to result in any noticeable changes to teeth color.

Although the relationship between hydrogen peroxide and oral cancer is unclear, based on the limited effectiveness of these products, I see no reason to expose your gums or mouth tissue to the potential risk.

9. Strawberries, Lemons, Pineapples, and Apple Cider Vinegar

You’ll get results, yes, but at a cost. These DIY pastes and ACV “work” because the fruit’s acid wears away the top layer of enamel, revealing whiter enamel underneath.

COST: Varies by method, generally less than $10

Pros: By eroding enamel, you will remove surface stains and reveal whiter teeth.

Risks: When enamel is worn away by acid, teeth begin to look worn, old, and discolored. Just like sun tanning means you’ll get wrinkles faster, the acids in these DIY pastes speed up the aging process of your teeth. That means they’ll get yellower faster.

Risks of Whitening Teeth

Using natural methods of stain removal like charcoal toothpaste and oil pulling are unlikely to cause you dental problems.

On the other hand, whitening that employs bleaching agents do come with significant risks to consider. Many of these are seen most in those who whiten their teeth too frequently.

  • Rebound yellowing of teeth (your teeth are most susceptible to discoloration in the several days after you bleach them, particularly when exposed to staining foods and drinks)
  • Sensitivity to hot/cold and other forms of toothache
  • Uneven results, particularly when using whitening strips, which can leave discolored spots or whole teeth
  • Breakdown of compounds in dental materials like glass ionomer (dental cement) or resin dental fillings
  • Increased exposure to mercury for those with amalgam fillings
  • Damage or burns to enamel, gums, or soft tissue inside the mouth
  • Teeth that appear translucent or become brittle (from over-bleaching)
  • “Bleachorexia,” which is defined as one type of body dysmorphia where individuals try whitening teeth even when they can’t physically become whiter

To avoid these risks, it’s important to meet with your dentist before beginning the whitening process. This ensures two major factors for your safety:

  1. S/he can make sure you don’t have untreated tooth decay or gum disease, which can both limit the effectiveness of whitening and get worse when exposed to bleaching agents.
  2. You can land on an agreed-upon “target” for your whitening treatment. This way, you aren’t tempted by over-bleaching and can pick the method that’s most appropriate for your situation.

Teeth Whitening Contraindications

teeth whitening

If you fall into one of these groups, I recommend you talk with your dentist about your unique case, as teeth whitening probably isn’t right for you:

  • Your teeth are already very sensitive
  • You have GERD or acid erosion on your teeth
  • You have gum recession
  • Your gums are sensitive
  • You have sensitivity to hydrogen peroxide
  • You have cavities
  • You have white spot decalcifications (early cavity) which will become whiter and more noticeable after whitening
  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • You’re under age 18
  • You have visible plastic fillings or crowns

Find yourself on this list? That’s okay! There are ways to make your teeth look whiter without actually whitening them. These include:

  • Changing lipstick shades
  • Get a spray tan
  • Consider a darker hair color (brunettes often look like they have whiter teeth, but it’s frequently due to the color contrast)
  • Wear dark clothing when your smile will be featured in photos

How to Prevent New Stains on Teeth

Prevention will always be the preferred method for everything relating to your teeth, whether it be cavities, gum disease, whitening, or other concerns.

To experience a lifelong bright smile, you’ll follow similar advice to what’s best for cavity and gum disease prevention. That’s because plaque buildup is one reason teeth look stained—plus, tooth decay leads to tooth discoloration.

Tips for preventing stains include:

  1. Proper nutrition for teeth: Avoid refined carbohydrates whenever possible, including sugars, and follow a diet high in healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, grass-fed animal products, and the like. Because red wine, coffee, and dark teas are high in staining tannins, be sure to rinse your mouth with water after drinking these staining compounds.
  2. Brushing teeth: Each day, you should brush your teeth in the morning and before bed, plus 30-45 minutes after eating decay-promoting foods.
  3. Flossing: When patients ask if brushing or flossing is more important, my answer is flossing! Getting rid of food particles between teeth is vital to avoiding plaque buildup and preventing cavities.
  4. Oil pulling: Because it helps balance the good-to-bad bacteria ratio within the mouth, oil pulling is a good stain-preventing method.
  5. Mouth taping: When you tape your mouth shut at night, you prevent mouth breathing, which can dry out the mouth. Poorly hydrated teeth will get yellow faster—plus, mouth taping helps reduce bad breath.

Teeth Whitening FAQs

Q:

Does dental insurance cover teeth whitening?

A: No. Whitening is a cosmetic procedure that’s not medically necessary, so it’s very often not covered.
Q:

Is whitening ever medically necessary?

A: No, never. There is no health reason for needing to whiten your teeth.

Most of the yellowing of the teeth is due to aging, and this condition is perfectly normal. Whitening is a personal preference.

Q:

How safe is teeth whitening?

A: There is a significant amount of clinical data that shows whitening gel is safe, particularly bleaching gels with a neutral pH and 10 percent carbamide peroxide. In fact, I personally use a gel with these exact specifications.

My whole family has whitened their teeth using this system, and I’ve tried to mitigate the risks by using custom-made trays, which keep bleaching gel off of the gums and oral tissues.

I think teeth whitening is safe if you take it slow, work with a dentist you trust, and research the bleaching gel you use beforehand.

That said, there are some safety considerations related to teeth whitening that you need to be aware of:

  • The free radicals released by peroxide may or may not be associated with a higher risk of oral cancer. None of the studies on this are conclusive, but the absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of harm.
  • Some studies have reported damages to enamel which include demineralization or etching, shallow depressions, and slight erosion. This only seems to happen for whitening gels with high concentrations of peroxide with a very low, acid pH.
  • Be wary of “research” and claims of super-effective whitening gels. Often, a specific product’s documentation on safety and effectiveness is limited and consists of research sponsored by the manufacturer. I don’t find that to be reliable, as there’s a certainly conflict of interest.
  • Teeth whiteners are not classified as drugs, therefore the FDA does not regulate them before they go on the market. Like with supplements, this leaves room for shady companies to sell cheap products until they’re fined by the FDA after the fact. Aim to get a peroxide gel from a reputable, established company.
Q:

How can I whiten my teeth naturally?

A: The best method to naturally whiten teeth is to prevent them from yellowing in the first place.

To do this, be sure to wear a mouthguard during sports and other extreme activities, as damaged teeth tend to age—and yellow—prematurely.

You should also avoid consuming highly pigmented foods and drinks (like, coffee, tea, wine, and food coloring) that can cause staining. If you can’t avoid them altogether, be sure to at least drink water during and after consumption.

In general, drinking plenty of water throughout the day is a good way to prevent staining.

If staining has already occured, a good, stain removing, electric toothbrush like the Goby brush is the best whitening option.

As an added bonus for choosing a Goby toothbrush, you can purchase a subscription plan that delivers replacement brush heads right to your door every one to three months, so you never have to remember to purchase them again.

Q:

Why and how do teeth yellow and darken?

A: Here are a few factors that cause yellowing and darkening of the teeth:

Biology: Adult teeth are naturally grayer and yellower than baby teeth. With so many images of sparkling white teeth online and in magazines, people whiten their teeth in hopes of getting the same results. But we forget—teeth are not naturally that white.

Staining: Your teeth might also appear yellow because of staining from years of consuming wine, tea, coffee, tobacco, and other highly pigmented products. By rinsing with water during and after the consumption of staining foods and drinks, you can do a lot to protect the color of your teeth.

Aging: This type of yellowing is much deeper than the superficial staining caused by drinking coffee or wine. As we age, the organic tissue deep inside the tooth, called dentin, begins to yellow. This yellowed pigment is then refracted out through the enamel, giving the entire tooth a yellow color.

If your teeth appear yellow when you look in the mirror, it’s likely a combination of all three of these factors. I do want to stress, however, that some yellowing is totally natural and nothing to worry about.

Q:

Is it safe to whiten my child’s teeth?

A: While most whitening methods aren’t safe for little ones, it’s okay to use a whitening tray for just 15 minutes at a time once all baby teeth have fallen out. You can find more details in my article about whitening children’s teeth.
Q:

How can I whiten my dental restorations?

A: You can only bleach and remove stains from natural teeth, not restorations like crowns, veneers, etc. If you find your restorations no longer match your natural teeth, you’ll need to switch them out for new ones.

This is one reason it’s important to talk to your dentist before whitening. S/he can help you determine the goal for your whitening treatment to make sure your restorations are considered.

Q:

Do dentists whiten a tooth when it gets root canaled?

A: Because a “mummified” tooth, after a root canal, will age faster than living teeth (and yellow faster), your dentist or endodontist may be bleached internally during a root canal. This is called intracoronal bleaching.

Although this is a common practice, intracoronal bleaching can result in weaker dentin in the mummified tooth as well as a higher risk of root resorption.

Q:

Can I whiten my teeth just once and never need to do it again?

A: Teeth yellow as you age, so there’s no way to prevent discoloration altogether without veneers, bonding, or dentures.

History of Teeth Whitening

Throughout history, whiter teeth have been associated with beauty and wealth. In the 17th century, the first formal whitening method was tested, which involved filing down the teeth, then applying acid to erode the outer layer of teeth.

Although this method was later scrapped for doing so much damage to teeth, people have tried many methods in the following centuries, like:

  • Dangerous chemicals to erode enamel
  • Urine and goat milk (this is thought to be from ancient Roman tradition)
  • A mixture of honey, salt, and vinegar
  • Oxalic acid
  • Sodium hypochlorite
  • Pyrozone (ether peroxide) mouthwash
  • Sodium perborate

In the 1940s, peroxide gels became more popular. Dr. William Klusmeier, an orthodontist from Arkansas, proposed custom trays with these peroxide gels in the 1960s. However, this method wasn’t widely used until research in 1989 proved it to be effective and safer than other common practices.

Today, the FDA has approved gels with 6% or less hydrogen peroxide or 16% or less carbamide peroxide. In the European Union, higher concentration gels are also considered risky and may only be used by a licensed dentist on those over 18 years old.

Final Thoughts on Teeth Whitening

While many people aim for the sparkliest smile they can achieve, whiter teeth don’t actually mean healthier teeth. That said, there’s nothing wrong with trying a safe teeth whitening method if you’re not happy with the color of your teeth. Teeth whitening is one great way your dentist can help you look younger.

Whatever your schedule looks like, there are helpful whitening methods you can try that will give you varying levels of color improvement.

My first suggestion for removal of stains is a great stain-removing toothpaste and oscillating toothbrush. For bleaching, a custom tray from your dentist and peroxide gels at a 10-15% concentration work most effectively without exposing your mouth to dangerous chemicals in the same way.

If you’re looking for the fastest way to whiten teeth, a treatment at the dentist will give the most drastic results in the shortest amount of time. Be cautious in the days afterwards and avoid all staining foods and drinks, as that’s when your teeth are most susceptible to further yellowing.

What other questions do you have about teeth whitening? Just ask me a question and I’ll be sure to add the answer here!

Read Next: The Dentist Picks 2 Best Whitening Toothpastes (2019 Update)

11 References

  1. Scully, C. (2012). Oral and Maxillofacial Medicine-E-Book: The Basis of Diagnosis and Treatment. Elsevier Health Sciences. Full text: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=75TdAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&ots=JW7h_a1yXv&sig=jq0v_hheDBbANvegGL4pjMhYcYI#v=onepage&q&f=false
  2. Kugel, G., Ferreira, S., Sharma, S., Barker, M. L., & Gerlach, R. W. (2009). Clinical trial assessing light enhancement of in‐office tooth whitening. Journal of Esthetic and Restorative Dentistry, 21(5), 336-347. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19796303
  3. Dahl, J. E., & Pallesen, U. (2003). Tooth bleaching—a critical review of the biological aspects. Critical Reviews in Oral Biology & Medicine, 14(4), 292-304. Full text: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jon_Dahl/publication/10621900_Tooth_Bleaching-a_Critical_Review_of_the_Biological_Aspects/links/0912f50aca551c99f9000000/Tooth-Bleaching-a-Critical-Review-of-the-Biological-Aspects.pdf
  4. He, L. B., Shao, M. Y., Tan, K., Xu, X., & Li, J. Y. (2012). The effects of light on bleaching and tooth sensitivity during in-office vital bleaching: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of dentistry, 40(8), 644-653. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK126422/
  5. Weitzman, S. A., Weitberg, A. B., Stossel, T. P., Schwartz, J., & Shklar, G. (1986). Effects of hydrogen peroxide on oral carcinogenesis in hamsters. Journal of Periodontology, 57(11), 685-688. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3104570
  6. Munro, I. C., Williams, G. M., Heymann, H. O., & Kroes, R. (2006). Use of hydrogen peroxide‐based tooth whitening products and its relationship to oral cancer. Journal of Esthetic and Restorative Dentistry, 18(3), 119-125. Full text: https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/42951246/Use_of_Hydrogen_Peroxide…
  7. Kleber, C. J., Moore, M. H., & Nelson, B. J. (1998). Laboratory assessment of tooth whitening by sodium bicarbonate dentifrices. The Journal of clinical dentistry, 9(3), 72-75. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10518866
  8. Kugel, G., Papathanasiou, A., Anderson, C., & Ferreira, S. (2006). Clinical evaluation of chemical and light-activated tooth whitening systems. Compendium of continuing education in dentistry (Jamesburg, NJ: 1995), 27(1), 54-62. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16454016
  9. Buchalla, W., & Attin, T. (2007). External bleaching therapy with activation by heat, light or laser—a systematic review. Dental materials, 23(5), 586-596. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16820199
  10. Shannon, H., Spencer, P., Gross, K., & Tira, D. (1993). Characterization of enamel exposed to 10% carbamide peroxide bleaching agents. Quintessence international, 24(1). Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8511257
  11. Abstract: Haywood, V. B. (1991). Overview and status of mouthguard bleaching. Journal of Esthetic and Restorative Dentistry, 3(5), 157-161. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1815713

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