I’d like to start by saying there is no perfectly safe way to whiten your teeth. But having said that, there are lots of people (myself included) who want to whiten our teeth! That’s why I always say—your dentist shouldn’t be the one to bring it up. You should be the one bringing up teeth whitening if that’s what you want to do. Just like cosmetic surgery, teeth whitening is a personal choice.
As we age, our teeth can become yellow or stained due to things like drinking coffee and tea, smoking, and other lifestyle habits. But that doesn’t mean you have to live with dull-looking teeth forever! Teeth whitening is one of the most popular cosmetic dentistry options out there, and it can help give you a brighter smile. However, it’s important to be aware of the different types of teeth whitening available so you can choose the safest option for your needs.
Can teeth whitening damage your teeth?
Yes. A few different ways:
1) A lot of whitening gel is too strong: Teeth whitening gel’s active ingredient is an oxidizer called hydrogen peroxide (which by the way should be the ONLY active ingredient in a whitening gel–I see a lot of other new whitening ingredients coming out that are dangerous.)
2) Whitening products aren’t well regulated: In the US, teeth whitening is a total free-for-all. Teeth whitening can cause pain and irreversible gum and tooth damage, which is why the EU has much stricter standards than the US. In the EU, you can’t get whitening gel over-the-counter at higher than 6%, and you have to be at least 18 years old to get it.
3) Whitening gel can damage and demineralize teeth: There have been plenty of studies that show that tooth whitening products when in contact with teeth literally change the surface enamel and/or demineralize teeth, making them very sensitive i.e. painful. Overbleaching (either at too high of a concentration or too often) can harm the pulp (inside of the tooth) and in the worst case, can result in a root canal.
4) We should be waiting to whiten until at least age 18: A lot of dentists are whitening kids’ teeth before prom. I whitened my own daughter’s teeth when she was 14 years old which is something I regret and would not choose to do for my grandchildren (know better, do better.) I recommend waiting until age 18 because the pulp chambers (the living tissue inside the tooth) shrink over time, so damage is less likely to occur when waiting until 18 when the pulp chambers have reached “maturity” and are less likely to be exposed to the whitening gel.
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Here are my requirements for safe teeth whitening:
The following recommendations are a combination of the EU regulations for teeth whitening as well as my personal opinion of what I like to see for myself and my patients:
- Choose a gel with a neutral pH range: That’s between seven and eight, which is neither acidic nor alkaline. Remember that it’s a free-for-all out there (at least in the US) and anybody can make a whitening gel and throw it up on Amazon with no regulation. Make sure you’re buying from a reputable company.
- Choose a gel with high water content: A lot of whitening gels desiccate the teeth (dry them out) which makes them more prone to damage and demineralization.
- Choose a gel with a strength that’s as close to EU regulations as possible: EU guidelines say a maximum of 6%, which we can’t get here in the US, so I recommend a gel with 10%.
- Wait until age 18 or older: This ensures that those pulp chambers have reached maturity and are less susceptible to damage from whitening. Will they be able to whiten their teeth for prom? No, but there are alternatives like these whitening strips which don’t use hydrogen peroxide as the active ingredient (they’ll remove stains but won’t “bleach” the teeth). And your kids will thank you later when they’re not suffering from sensitive teeth later in adulthood.
- Prioritize European guidelines ahead of something fluoride-free: The whitening gel I use has fluoride in it. I’ve been outspoken about the dangers of water fluoridation for children, but in this case, I accept fluoride in the whitening gel I use because we’re only whitening if we’re over 18, and topical fluoride works to stabilize the tooth after it’s vulnerable after whitening. I would much rather choose the whitening gel with fluoride in it than a low pH brand from a no-name company off of Amazon that’s going to damage my enamel. Now, if a company could make a teeth whitening gel at 6% and a neutral pH with hydroxyapatite instead of fluoride, then I’d be sold!
- Use a custom tray instead of strips: You do NOT want to get this gel on your gums. The active ingredient, carbamide peroxide, is an oxidizer that can harm the gums. This is why I’m very against whitening strips, which don’t allow the level of precision of delivering the gel only to the teeth and never the gum and other oral tissues.
Avoid DIY Solutions at All Cost!
It’s important to note that while there are plenty of DIY solutions floating around online (such as baking soda, strawberries, and lemon juice), these should be avoided at all costs! Not only do they not work as well as professionally developed products, but they can also damage your enamel and leave your teeth feeling sensitive afterward. It’s always best to stick with safe and tested ways of whitening your teeth if you want the best results without causing any harm to your dental health in the process.
Is professional whitening safe?
When you get your teeth whitened in the office, the dentist uses 35% carbamide peroxide. I would recommend saving this one for emergencies, aka you’re getting married in a week. And absolutely only for those over the age of 18 for the reasons discussed earlier.
Are at-home blue-light whitening kits safe?
For the most part, these are a bit of a scam. There have even been some lawsuits around these for lack of efficacy. This study concluded that the difference made by the light was “not statistically significant.” As for the safety of the blue light whitening kits, there’s nothing to be worried about. At worst, blue light whitening kits are a waste of money, but luckily they won’t damage your teeth.
So I’ll leave you with this: make sure to read those labels, always use custom trays, and follow instructions carefully to get the best possible results without risking damage or sensitivity afterward. No, you won’t be able to get quick results this way. But you’ll be able to get the results you want WITHOUT having to worry about damaging your teeth or being in pain.
Go slow and steady, whitening for no more than one hour each day, or every other day, for 6-8 weeks. Good luck!
The effect of light-activation sources on tooth bleaching – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4178330/