Should I get my teeth whitened? If so, how? These are questions many people ask themselves from time to time and, in all honesty, it depends! We understand how important it is to have a smile you can be proud of, and we love seeing those smiles on all of our patients. We do hope to avoid, however, unrealistic expectations that can be picked up through the blindingly white teeth you see in pop-culture media; those mouths can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars and it just isn’t realistic to expect your mouth to look like that without being ready to spend some serious cash. One of the best ways to set yourself up for failure is to start with unrealistic expectations. However, we also don’t want you feeling discouraged, because there are ways we can noticeably brighten your smile without costing an arm and a leg. Now that we have managed our expectations a bit, let’s talk about the basics.
There are a number of approaches to fixing tooth discoloration and maintaining a happy, healthy, beautiful smile. Each of these approaches have pros and cons and one may be better in certain situations while another is more appropriate in others.
Keep in mind before starting any whitening program that man-made materials, such as stained white fillings or crowns will not change color and will look worse as the bleaching gets whiter and whiter. However, that can be a good thing because you probably needed to have those old restorations replaced anyway!
If you haven’t already, this is likely going to be the first thing you try: it’s cheap, doesn’t require an office visit, and can be picked up on a whim at the grocery store. What you need to know, however, is that all toothpastes help fight surface stains using mildly abrasive polishing agents. What separates whitening-specific toothpastes with the ADA Seal of Acceptance from regular toothpastes are additional special chemicals or polishing agents. Overall, whitening toothpastes may be worth keeping around if you find they help you, but you shouldn’t be expecting any miraculous changes using these toothpastes. A mix of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide is cheap and works just as well, if you can put up with the taste. Just as an aside, it should be noted that basic oral hygiene, like regular brushing, flossing, and dental cleaning appointments are your first line of defense against unwanted discoloration.
Over-the-Counter Whitening Strips
Whitening strips are available at your local pharmacy or grocery store and have been gaining in popularity over the years. If you’re looking to brighten your smile a little bit and haven’t found whitening toothpaste to be especially helpful, these strips may be an option to consider. It’s important to follow the individual instructions on the packaging of the brand of strips you get, but, in general, you will be expected to keep the strips in your mouth for up to 45 minutes at a time, sometimes several times per day, for up to a couple weeks. While similar in many ways to the next method I discuss, there are some key differences.
Strips can be messy. When I tested them out, I couldn’t get the darn things to stay where I put them and I found myself constantly messing with them with my tongue. The weaker whitening substance and the shorter duration these treatments use can require higher frequency of use and a longer duration of the whitening regimen. I will say that I did notice a brighter smile after using the strips.
Office-Made Trays and Prescription Whitening Gel
Trays are a glorious way to whiten your teeth. Unlike whitening toothpaste or strips, trays take advantage of your dentist’s skill in producing a highly refined custom-fit set of trays in combination with prescription strength whitening gel. Like most instances of “you get what you pay for,” custom trays provided for a more comfortable treatment regimen and a more dramatic result. Don’t let that scare you off, the price may be higher than strips, but not prohibitively so. Typically, during treatment you will be instructed to wear your trays while you sleep at night for about a month.
One noteworthy side effect from use of either strips or trays is the potential for enhanced tooth sensitivity during and immediately following the whitening regimen period. About 50% of people who use trays experience some sensitivity to cold. I found switching to Sensodyne during my whitening regimen provided just what I needed to counteract the sensitivity from the whitening, but results may vary. If you are worried at all about how whitening will affect your tooth sensitivity, consult your dentist!
In-office whitening systems vary by office. Using an in-office whitening treatment, you can expect better results, faster. There may be some followup work to be done at home, but this is minimal. Some in-office whitening treatments are nearly pain free, but some can cause sensitivity and pain.
At this point, you should be discussing the particulars of your needs and treatment options with your dentist. Just make sure to ask good questions and listen carefully. Being an informed patient is important, and dentists cannot read minds, so ask those questions!