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How can OTC tooth whiteners brighten my teeth?

OTC tooth whiteners remove stains from your teeth, which can make them appear brighter. Whitening options involve using trays, gels, strips, toothpaste, tooth floss, or mouthwash.
Over-the-counter (OTC) tooth whiteners may help brighten your teeth in two main ways. Many toothpastes contain whitening ingredients that are called “abrasives.” They don't change the color of the teeth, but they help remove the stains that are on the outer layer of the teeth and can, over time, lead to brighter teeth.

Other OTC options are whitening strips and whitening gels that are placed into a mouthpiece. These products contain a bleaching agent called carbamide peroxide, available at different strengths (10%, 16%, and 22%). Unlike the ingredients in your whitening toothpaste, the peroxide does change the color of the teeth by bleaching the tooth enamel. Some people may have side effects from using over-the-counter bleaching/whitening kits. If you notice unusual symptoms, stop using your bleaching product and talk to your dentist.
Todd A. Welch, DMD
Periodontics
According to recent scientific research, consumer magazine testing and good old customer feedback, dental whitening strips brighten better than anything outside of a professional in-office visit. The best? Crest 3D Whitestrips -- their 9.5% peroxide blend bleaches teeth up to three shades lighter when worn once a day for two weeks. The newer "advanced seal" means these grip teeth better than old-school Whitestrips, so they don't shift around. Crest also gets high marks for other offerings in their whitening line, including Professional Effects and their more affordable Vivid package.

If you prefer to precisely place your tooth-whitening solution or like the idea of using tray systems to achieve a more dazzling grin, there are some very effective choices on the market. The GO SMiLE Whitening System offers neat little ampoules that you pop open and brush on for quick and convenient lightening. The solution not only gets thumbs up from those with sensitive choppers, it tastes surprisingly pleasant. (GO SMiLE also offers a Pre-Whitening Gel pack for a speedier and more spectacular shade change.)

Confining a peroxide gel in a tray is a more powerful method of stain removal, as the cleaning agent won't be compromised by the mouth's saliva. It may also irritate sensitive teeth and gums, so we'd advise using over-the-counter trays (or any intensive teeth whitening product) only after seeing your dentist for a once-over. That said, an effective mouth-guard-style whitening choice is Aquafresh White Trays -- these are pre-filled with a cleaning solution for convenience and fit average-sized mouths best.

No whitening toothpaste can match the stain-blasting power of strips, gels or tray systems as even those containing peroxide don't stay on your teeth long enough to bleach, but the best ones are a great addition to your "get gleaming" arsenal. They'll scrub away superficial surface stains so that the results from your last intensive whitening routine don't quickly fade. If you want that bright smile to survive, try to brush after every meal with one of our recommended toothpastes. (Note: dentists recommend you use over-the-counter whitening kits only once or twice a year to avoid enamel damage, so it's smart to extend the results with the right toothpaste.)
 
There are generally two different types of OTC whiteners - toothpastes, and strips/gels. The toothpastes use abrasives to help whiten your teeth. They actually don't whiten anything, but help scrape off discoloration (much like that soap with pumice in it).

The strips/gels generally use bleaching to whiten your teeth (typically a form of peroxide).

In my opinion, neither solution is great for your tooth enamel, and should be used sparingly. Your dentist probably has better treatment options available (you'd expect me to say this as a cosmetic dentist, but it is truly how I feel -- the quick-fix drugstore stuff is not great for your teeth.)

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.