What could possibly be more attractive than a bright, white smile?
Well, we like to think that a healthy smile is the most attractive, so while we’re on the topic of teeth whitening, let’s also talk about how to safeguard your oral health while in pursuit of a brighter smile with whiter teeth. Dr. Charles Sutera, FAGD, one of the nation’s top experts on dental care and aesthetics, shares his insights on the topic of healthy, attractive, and whiter teeth.
The More You Know
Achieving whiter teeth while minimizing health risks begins with understanding how teeth whitening actually works. In simple terms, the hydrogen peroxide that’s applied to your teeth shuttles oxygen molecules into the enamel of the tooth and whitens stains that are under the surface, trapped in what are called tubules. The result is a brighter-looking surface of your tooth.
Here’s where it gets tricky: That process effectively “opens up” the tubules. Until they return to normal, you can re-stain your teeth with foods and beverages, experience increased tooth sensitivity for a couple days, and damage your tooth enamel.
So, how do you get those pearly whites whiter without those complications?
Home Whitening Effectively
Nowadays, you can walk into any pharmacy, supermarket, or department store and find numerous at-home whitening products. So how do you choose?
Bleaching is all about hydrogen peroxide concentration and how long it’s in contact with the tooth. The higher the percentage, the less time the gel needs to be left on the teeth to reach its full reaction. You may see “carbamide peroxide” on some over-the-counter products—this is a chemical that converts to hydrogen peroxide.
The key to getting the best result: All teeth whitening products must be in stable contact with the teeth for at least 15 minutes without getting diluted or washed away.
So, when surveying the various over-the-counter options, ask yourself whether that’s possible. Can you keep a rinse or a powder in contact with your teeth long enough? (Hint: you can’t.)
So, look for gels, strips, or tray systems for optimal whitening.
While using a tooth whitening product, avoid foods and beverages that stain your teeth. They’re more susceptible to staining while you’re using whitening solutions.
Tip: Drink beverages that could stain your teeth through a straw.
Home Whitening Safely
The most common complication with hydrogen peroxide is that it can irritate and even burn the gums. It usually is a temporary, white-looking irritation of the gums, which return to normal in a few days. However, if an excessive amount of whitening gel stays on the gums, it can cause your gums to recede.
Because you should minimize contact with your gums as much as possible, strips applied carefully or trays with a gel application are generally your best bet for safer at-home whitening.
A word about “fad” whitening gimmicks: Don’t.
Most whitening fads are ineffective at best, damaging at worst. For example, some employ abrasive materials to “scrub” away the stains; some use acidic applications. Either of those can damage your tooth enamel and should be avoided.
How is in-office teeth whitening different than at-home teeth whitening? It generally comes down to the speed of results. The prescription in-office whitening solution contains a 35-40% hydrogen peroxide gel, which is much stronger than any over-the-counter product can legally offer. It’s usually applied four times in 15-minute increments by a professional, who can minimize contact of the high-concentration gel with the gums.
Here’s the general process of how In-Office Whitening procedures work:
- Preparation–Your lips and gums are covered with a block-our material to protect them. Photos of your smile are taken to compare and the cosmetic dentist will estimate a goal for shades of improvement.
- Application–A high-concentration teeth bleaching gel is applied to the surfaces of your teeth.
- Reaction–The gel is allowed to sit on the teeth for 15 minutes. Some cosmetic dentists use a whitening light, which is placed directly in front of your teeth. The gel gently penetrates the outer-most (enamel) layer of your teeth, breaking up stains and discoloration during the process. The process of applying gel for 15 minutes at a time and rinsing it off is repeated about four times.
- Results–You have results in about one hour (as opposed to days or weeks with an over-the-counter product). Protect your newly brighter teeth by avoiding foods and beverages that can stain them for at least 72 hours after whitening.
A Surprising Way to Get Brighter Teeth
Another way of brightening your teeth has nothing to do with trays, blue lights, or hydrogen peroxide.
If you have teeth with mercury-amalgam fillings, having those old fillings replaced with a porcelain compound can actually make your teeth appear whiter—because they’re more translucent than most of us realize.
A More Permanent Solution
We can’t talk about whiter teeth without mentioning the longest-lasting way to get your teeth their very brightest: veneers.
Veneers are ceramic or porcelain shells, customized to fit and bonded to the front surfaces of your teeth. Once they’re bonded to your teeth, the ultra-thin material is virtually undetectable from the real thing and it’s highly resistant to coffee, tea, cigarette, and other stains. Veneers can also do the heavy lifting of “fixing” other problems affecting your smile like improving the appearance of crooked, chipped, or gapped teeth.