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Teeth Whitening - Mistakes People Make

Updated on July 25, 2010

Whitening Your Teeth - Don't get it Wrong

Tooth whitening is a great way to look better and boost your confidence. It's also one of the very few dental procedures that doesn't involve taking anything away, so it's essentially harmless - except to your bank balance if you get it wrong. And many people do get it wrong because they forget that people who give you advice when they're trying to sell you stuff are usually looking after their own interests, not yours.

A lot of people are having their teeth whitened nowadays. That’s great – you can never have too many reasons to feel good about yourself, especially in a recession, and tooth whitening has never been cheaper. It’s very effective and is one of the few dental treatments that doesn’t entail removing any tissue; there is no drilling and no need for injections.

Great. But it’s not as simple as you might think. You have to decide how to go about getting your teeth whitened, and it’s easy to get it wrong. Here are the most common mistakes people make when they decide to whiten their teeth (Many dentists don’t want you to know this stuff and it should be pretty clear which of the following points this refers to):

1. The biggest mistake is to believe that spending more on so-called ‘power’ or ‘laser’ whitening you will get a better result.

Not so. Power whitening also represents very poor value for money. Let’s start with the cost. This procedure costs a lot because you have to be in the dental chair for up to an hour. Surgery time is money and dental practice overheads are high. Unfortunately, the results are often disappointing, with the teeth changing shade very little, changing patchily, or ending up with an unnatural chalky appearance. This does not reflect how well the procedure has been carried out; it’s just unpredictable.

The relapse rate is also alarmingly high. It should tell you something that the manufacturers of power whitening systems recommend you follow up with a home kit to ‘stabilize’ the result. What they fail to mention is that it’s the home kit that does the work and you would get exactly the same result without the expensive ‘power’ or ‘laser’ stage. It just takes a day or two longer. The ‘power’ stage also increases the likelihood of the teeth becoming sensitive to temperature – sometimes severely so, and it can be quite painful in its own right.

2. The second most costly mistake is to believe that all home whitening kits are the same. They aren’t. Yes you can buy kits in the supermarket or in Boots but the strength of active gel that can be sold over the counter is strictly limited. A proprietary kit may cost a tenth of what you would pay for a professional version from a dentist, but you would probably have to fork out for a lot more than ten kits to get the same result – and it would take an awful lot longer to get there. Also, many over-the-counter products have not been evaluated for safety with prolonged usage.
When you get a tooth whitening tray from your dentist it is accurately made to fit your mouth. This can never be the case with an off the shelf product, so there is an increased likelihood of gum irritation both from the tray itself and from gel leeching out onto the gums.

3. Please don’t be tempted to buy high-strength gel on the Internet. There are very good reasons for the over-the-counter restrictions and inappropriate use of some readily available products can be harmful to both hard tissues (teeth) and soft tissues (everything else, including gums, lips and skin). For example, some kits from less regulated countries are acidic. They initially make the teeth look whiter by etching the enamel – similar to opaque glass. This etching results in loss of tooth structure, leading to increased temperature sensitivity and susceptibility to decay. Dentists have likened buying whitening products on the Internet to ‘scoring’ prescription medication in an alley behind a night club. This is perhaps overstating the case, but you get my point.

4. It’s not very sensible to go to a beautician or to a gym to have your teeth whitened. The people there will reassure you that the procedure is safe so there’s no need to pay professional prices. Well, it is safe – if you know what you’re doing, if you know how to avoid or minimize side-effects, if nothing goes wrong and if you know how to deal with any complications that do occur.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come to me to pick up the pieces following ‘safe’ bleaching by amateurs. After all, modern airliners can fly themselves these days – but I bet you’d want a qualified pilot sitting in the cockpit just in case.
5. Don’t expect whitening toothpastes to alter the overall shade of your teeth. These products are generally designed to remove surface stains and they are often quite effective at doing so – but they are unlikely to change the shade of unstained enamel.

6. Another mistake is not to plan for how existing porcelain veneers, crowns, bridges and white fillings will look following whitening. These restorations will not lighten like your own teeth and may need to be replaced to prevent them appearing unacceptably dark afterwards. This needs to be planned for – before you begin whitening (and personally, I wouldn’t recommend getting a beautician to draw up the treatment plan).

7. Something else that has to be taken into account before you begin is that there are various types of discolouration and darkening of the teeth, caused by a number of different factors. These will not all respond to whitening in the same way. Some types will change very little, if at all.

Spectacular results can be achieved but it is essential to have a professional examination to ascertain how best to obtain the smile you want before forking out any of your hard-earned money. To this end, many dentists offer a free, no-obligation preliminary consultation.

8. Another thing people forget is that they may have to modify their lifestyle to minimize relapse. For example, if you rely on quick-fix power whitening, you will have to cut out tea, coffee, red wine, curries, all sorts of strongly coloured food and drink and smoking (which of course you should do anyway).

With home kits this is less of an issue because you can treat yourself to a quick top-up at any time – usually for no extra cost.

9. Remember to leave sufficient time to achieve the desired result. You can usually begin whitening within one week of your consultation, or sometimes on the same day, depending on what laboratory processes need to be carried out to fabricate the gel trays. Then, typically, it will take about two weeks of using the gel to reach the level of whiteness you desire (obviously, this varies from person to person. The speed of change is also governed by how frequently you use the product. If you only do it every second day, it will take longer – but you’ll still get there. That’s another advantage of the home system – you can tailor it to suit your lifestyle)

10. Another mistake that people make, especially when using over-the-counter products, is that they don’t go to see the hygienist before they begin whitening. If you have all surface stains and deposits removed first, the gel will be able to get at the enamel and will work much more quickly and effectively.

So, if you want a bright, sparkly smile that will last and if you want to get it safely, comfortably, economically and with confidence that you are going about it the right way, please see a professional – and don’t let them ‘up-sell’ you something you don’t need.

Tom Nolan is a dentist with over 30 years’ experience.

If you found this article useful, you should check out his book

Watch Your Mouth – An Owner’s Manual.

Also available as a download. This book is packed with practical advice and will tell you everything you need to know to keep your mouth healthy, trouble-free and beautiful for the rest of your life.

You can get in touch via Tom's practice: The Dentist in Town.

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