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  • Writer's pictureChris Salierno, DDS

What's the best way to whiten my teeth?

If you're looking for a brighter, whiter smile, there are right ways and wrong ways to do it. I often hear concerns from my patients about "stripping the enamel from my teeth" or similar kinds of irreversible damage. Don't worry, that will not happen with the products you can buy in a store or get from your dentist. The wrong ways to whiten will just be ineffective and a waste of your time and money.

First, we need to start with clean teeth. As I often tell my patients, we want to whiten your teeth, not the plaque sitting on top of your teeth. If you've had a professional cleaning in the past few months then you should be good to go. If it's been longer than a few months then you'll probably find your whitening material will be more effective if you have a dentist or hygienist clean you up first. And if you haven't been to the dentist for a check-up in years, then you should definitely do so right away. Whitening agents that you buy in the store won't strip the enamel from your teeth, but if you have active tooth decay then you risk doing some painful damage to your teeth.

Next, we need to evaluate what we don't like about the appearance of our teeth. There are two types of stain: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic stain sits on the top of your tooth and it's from leftover food, drinks, and bacteria leftovers. It often has yellow color, or even black or green. Intrinsic stain is part of your teeth. It's a bright white, brown, gray, or blue appearance that has usually been present for a long time. Teeth can also gain a yellow/brown color due to gradual wearing of the enamel, which is typically seen in older populations. If you have extrinsic stain or if you have an aged yellow/brown look to your teeth, then most whitening solutions will help you. If you have intrinsic stain, whitening solutions will often not have a dramatic effect.

Now let's talk about whitening solutions. Most options use formulations of either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. Both work fine. The key is to find a delivery method that is comfortable and effective.

Method 1: Custom bleaching trays

This is my favorite way to whiten teeth and I use it myself. A tray is made by your dentist to perfectly fit to your teeth. A prescription-strength dose of bleaching material is applied inside and the trays are worn for a period of time, every day. Based on the whitening material you may need to wear the trays for 30 minutes, overnight, etc. Whitening is accomplished typically over a 2-week period.

Method 2: Bleaching strips

Crest White Strips have been quite popular since they were introduced. They work well! If you're buying them online or in a store then the whitening agents won't be as strong as what a dentist can give you, but you should still see a nice result. The other things to consider is that they are made to fit everyone; they're not a custom fit. Be sure to follow the instructions so that the strips are applied correctly. Whitening is accomplished typically over a 2-week period.

Method 3: Light-activated whitening

The main advantage here is that you can whiten all at once instead of a two week period. High-strength whitening material is applied to your teeth and your gums, cheeks, and lips are protected with barriers. A special light is placed in front of your teeth to accelerate the process, which can take an hour or longer. You'll be noticeably whiter immediately following the procedure, but expect some of that to fade in a day or so. This is because the teeth get temporarily dehydrated in the light. This method works well but the risk of temporary sensitivity is higher due to the heat generated in the process. Also, please note that only dental offices will have the prescription-strength whitening material. If you're getting this kind of whitening done in a salon or at the mall, you may actually be getting the same material you can buy in the store and use at home!

Method 4: Emulsions, applicators, etc.

This is a miscellaneous category of whitening solutions. The idea is to paint whitening agents on your teeth in some fashion that doesn't involve trays or strips, but the process is ultimately similar. Crest Whitening Emulsions is one example.

So what's the best way to whiten? It depends what kind of stain you have and on what ways you're comfortable doing treatment. Some people hate sitting still in a chair for an hour and others want instant results. Talk to your dentist and hygienist about your goals and they can help evaluate what methods will be the best for you.


Disclaimer: ToothQuest is for informational purposes only and is not to be taken as dental, medical, or legal advice.  Please consult with your dentist or other appropriate healthcare professional before making any decisions that would affect your health.

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