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Smile, and the whole world smiles with you. But if you’re self-conscious about your teeth, you may not feel like smiling all that much. The good news? A brighter, whiter smile is easier and more affordable than you think. We asked the experts to weigh in on the most popular teeth whitening methods, from the drugstore to the dental office.
Before you think about whitening your teeth, make sure all is well orally. “Whiter teeth doesn’t mean healthier teeth,” says Mark Vitale, DMD, president of the New Jersey Dental Association. Leaky fillings, exposed roots, cavities and other issues need to be fixed first. Otherwise, ouch, hypersensitivity. Not to mention professionally cleaned teeth allow bleaching agents to work more effectively. With the exception of abrasives, most whiteners use hydrogen peroxide or variations to sink into the enamel and break up stains. “Many of the available products and procedures will provide whiter, more attractive looking teeth,” says Vitale. The choice is yours.
“All toothpastes help remove surface stains through the action of mild abrasives that clean the surface of the teeth,” says Vitale. “Look for the ADA [American Dental Association] seal for safe whitening toothpastes that have special chemical or polishing agents to provide enhanced stain removal.”
Pros: Most toothpastes work well for surface stains like coffee and wine, and you’re brushing anyway, right?
Cons: They have limited effectiveness when it comes to stubborn stains.
STRIPS, RINSES AND MORE
Browse the oral care aisle of your local pharmacy and you’ll find pens, rinses and generic gel trays. All drugstore whiteners work to some degree, depending on your enamel thickness and the amount (and type) of staining, as long as you follow the instructions and are patient. You may need more than one round to achieve what you want. The most popular method, though, are strips for both effectiveness and ease. “Whitening strips contain a bleaching agent in a concentration lower than what your dentist would use in the office,” says Vitale, and they’ll work if you put in the time.
There’s even a professional in-office version that comes with a tray that molds to your teeth to really get into those crevices. Unlike strips, which seal in the bleaching agent, pens and rinses can irritate surrounding tissue and thicken skin over time. “I’m not a fan,” says Bruce J. Roland, DMD, a Somerset-based dentist. And keep an eye out for high-tech options: Glo Science’s whitening device uses LED blue light to brighten teeth similarly to laser treatments.
Pros: Pens, rinses and strips are effective, easy to use and come in assorted strengths.
Cons: They taste terrible and feel weird. Plus, even flexible strips can’t get into the recesses.
CUSTOM WHITENING TRAYS
Sure, laser whitening is hi-tech, but many dentists prefer custom whitening trays to their state-of-art sibling. “I’ve found them to be most effective in my 35 years of experience,” says Vitale. How does it work? A customized mouth tray is filled with professional strength peroxide gel. Then you bite it and chill for 15 to 20 minutes at a time for up to seven days or so. You can also buy gels online and in stores, but, “the gel used in a dental office is much stronger,” says Vitale.
Pros: They’re as cheap and effective as lasers, and can be reused for touch-ups.
Cons: Like strips, trays require patience and commitment.
Walk in with yellowed, stained teeth—walk out with a dazzling smile. “It’s for someone who can’t wait and wants immediate results,” says Roland. Here’s how it works: A gel or rubber shield will be applied to the gums to protect them from irritation. Then, a laser (or an intense visible light) heats up and activates peroxide gel that’s been painted onto the teeth. It works…for a while. “If you do Zoom [a brand name whitener] and nothing else, it tends to revert,” says Roland, which is why he sends patients home with custom whitening trays and gels to maintain the look.
Pros: Fast, effective and good for people who won’t stick to a gel tray regimen.
Cons: Can be pricey, tends to fade after 4 to 6 months and may dehydrate teeth.
Want a Hollywood smile? A bleaching tray won’t cut it. Veneers, made of composite resin or porcelain, are bonded to teeth, resulting in a dramatic change in color, shape and position. It’s pricey (up to $2,000 per tooth) for those with just a tinge of dinge. “Restorative work is a last resort,” says Roland. But it’s the best solution for masking stains caused by antibiotics, root canals and fillings. Veneers may also benefit patients with hard-to-whiten thin enamel caused by genetics, grinding, aging and brushing too hard.
Pros: Your ideal white shade will remain stain-free(you’ll look like a celeb!)
Cons: Expensive, impermanent and requires sacrificing the original tooth surface (newer, thinner versions are less damaging).
Swishing with oil for 20 minutes (coconut oil is popular) and brushing with activated charcoal powder (rumored to draw out impurities) are trendy among the eco set. But do they work? “There are no reliable scientific studies to show that oil pulling reduces cavities, whitens teeth or improves oral health,” says Vitale. And charcoal? “Materials that are too abrasive on your teeth can actually make them look more yellow. Enamel is what you’re looking to whiten, but if you’re using a scrub that’s too rough, you can actually wear it away,” Vitale adds. If you want a natural remedy, he advises trying baking soda.
Pros: Cheap and natural.
Cons: Not effective at best, damaging at worst; messy and tedious.
Hypomineralized white spots (aka hypoplasia) aren’t just unsightly, but can progress into decaying messes. How do you get at them? These hypo-calcified areas on your teeth can be treated through various remineralization treatments, including resin infiltration (penetrating the spots with a substance similar to fillings) followed by prescription toothpaste.
Pros: Non-invasive and quick.
Cons: Spots may not disappear completely.
Probiotics can help transform the health of your mouth. “Oral probiotics make your teeth whiter. They oxygenate. There are lots of benefits,” says Roland, who personally uses them. Be patient: Whitening effects won’t be seen for about three months.
Pros: Less inflammation, a cleaner mouth and somewhat whiter teeth.
Cons: An extra pill to take every day, whitening may be mild at best.
Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer.