Teeth Whitening Tips and Secrets

Get the gleaming smile you want with these safe, convenient options.

Teeth Whitening Tips and Secrets

Do you want a dazzling, movie-star smile but you're not sure how to go about getting it? Are you curious to know how over-the-counter (OTC) teeth-whitening products stack up against what's available at your dentist? Our dental experts explain the many teeth-whitening options to help you decide what's best. 

Keep in mind, teeth whitening is for adults and older teens. If you're younger than 15 years old, your tooth enamel probably hasn't fully matured yet and the dentin is also thinner, which means the pulp (deep insides) of your teeth can be more susceptible to the bleaching peroxide. Most dentists recommend that you wait until you're a little older before thinking about teeth whitening. 

Professional teeth-whitening potions 
In-office treatments. Chair-side whitening procedures will usually give you the most impressive results. During the treatment, a cosmetic dentist paints a hydrogen peroxide solution onto your teeth and may shine a bright light on them to accelerate the whitening process. In about an hour, you can walk out with dramatically whiter teeth. But in-office whitening is also the most expensive option, costing anywhere from about $700 to $1,000, according to Jerry Gordon, DDS, a dentist in private practice in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. 

Take-home kits. Dentists can prescribe custom-fit trays that you use with whitening gel at home. These systems usually deliver similar results as the in-office treatments but at a more affordable cost, says Dr. Gordon. "The main drawbacks are that the hydrogen peroxide whitening solution can be irritating to the gums and it can take a couple days before you start to see results." 

OTC teeth-whitening options
Whitening strips. This low-cost option involves plastic strips that you lay over the surface of your teeth for about 30 minutes a day for 2 to 3 weeks. "They're best for people who have fairly straight teeth," says Gordon. "If your teeth are out of alignment, they won't work as well." 

Whitening toothpastes. Although whitening toothpastes are good at gradually removing surface stains, such as discoloration from dark sodas, coffee and wine, they don't work as well for deeper stains, such as yellowing that is common as we age, says Jonathan B, Levine, DMD, an associate professor at the NYU School of Dentistry. "Even though there's some peroxide in the toothpaste, there's not enough contact time for it do any real whitening," he explains. 

At-home devices. This new technology usually involves a mouthpiece with a built-in light and heat source that help accelerate the whitening process. "These devices deliver professional whitening results at home in a shorter amount of time, so there's less chance of damaging the gums and other soft tissues," says Dr. Levine. 

Boil-and-bite trays. The oldest and most unsafe OTC teeth-whitening products are the tray and gel systems, according to Levine. "You boil the tray, and then you bite into it, and gel gets all over the place, including your soft tissues," he says. "These kinds of products usually take weeks and weeks of use before you see results, and by this time, it's likely to have caused soft tissue damage." 

Some helpful hints 
See your dentist before you begin. Even if you decide to try an OTC teeth-whitening product, it's a good idea to have a dental exam before you start using it, says Gordon. "You want to make sure that the discoloration isn't due to a more serious problem, such as cavities or an infection," he explains. 

Drink cautiously. When it comes to stain-causing beverages, the worst offenders are coffee, tea, red wine and purple grape juice. One tip is to drink these beverages through a straw. If the thought of sticking a straw in your Merlot gives you pause, try this: After taking a sip of wine, immediately drink plain water, which will help rinse away the staining liquid before it has a chance to settle on your teeth. 

Don't overdo it. "Some patients tend to get carried away and overuse whitening products, and that can lead to weakening of the enamel as well as gum irritation," says Gordon. 

Medically reviewed in January 2019. Updated in March 2021. 

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