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Teeth Whitening - What Can It Do For You?

Updated on February 26, 2012

What can it do for you? Just make your teeth look lighter, cleaner and younger – with all the benefits to confidence and self esteem that come along with that. And the beauty of professional tooth whitening is that it doesn’t involve removing ANY tooth substance. So, no injections and no drilling.

There are many teeth whitening systems available, including whitening toothpastes, over-the-counter gels, strips and trays, and whitening agents obtained from a dentist. They work to varying degrees in various ways and not all are suitable for everyone – and, unfortunately, there are some people for whom no form of simple tooth whitening is going to work.

Whitening is ideal for people who have healthy, unrestored teeth (no fillings, crowns or veneers at the front of the mouth) and whose gums are in good shape. In general, yellow discolouration responds better than grey, but there are many individual factors that can affect the outcome. So it’s vital to talk things through with your dentist before you spend any money on tooth whitening. This is why most dentists offer free consultations, allowing you to find out what will be right, effective and safe for you – and even if you ultimately decide to go somewhere else for your treatment, that’s okay because at least you’ll be in a position to make an informed decision.

Whitening toothpastes

All toothpastes contain mild abrasives to help remove surface stains. Whitening toothpastes have extra polishing or chemical agents to enhance stain removal – but these products will, at best, remove only surface stains and can not lighten the body colour of the tooth.

Over-the-counter products

A variety of products are available to apply peroxide to the teeth. Some of these are damaging and most are ineffective because safety regulations limit the amount of peroxide they are allowed to contain. An over-the-counter product is not so cheap if you have to use several kits to achieve any sort of worthwhile result. Some products that are available on the internet are positively harmful (see my hub 'Mistakes People Make When Whitening Their Teeth')

In-house/ ‘power’ whitening

For this procedure, you sit in the dentist’s chair for 30-60 minutes while strong peroxide is applied to your teeth. A lamp or a laser may be used to accelerate the process. This is certainly the fastest way to lighten your teeth. It is also the most expensive – which would be fine if it were also the best but, unfortunately (unfortunately for us dentists), it isn’t.

I provided power whitening for many years, using a variety of top brand systems. Sometimes the results were spectacular but more often they weren’t – and the teeth always darken again quickly unless you follow up with a home gel (which works REALLY well – in fact, it works so well that it makes the first, ‘power’ stage unnecessary, which can save you a LOT of money). By the way, in case you’re thinking that I probably just wasn’t very good at it, let me assure you that every dentist and dental nurse with whom I discussed power whitening reported the same lack of predictable overall success – although, having invested in expensive equipment, you can bet they didn’t tell their patients that.

Next time you watch a TV make-over show, pay close attention to the patient’s face when they’re shown their whitened teeth for the first time. What you’ll see is everyone else in the room saying wow what a great result it is, while the bemused patient stares at the mirror and tries to work out what they’re supposed to be seeing. Then social pressure kicks in and they feel they have to agree with everybody else – It’s the same technique stage hypnotists use to get co-operation.

Home whitening gel

This is how I do it. After thoroughly examining you to ascertain the best way to give you the result you desire, I discuss all the appropriate options with you. If you choose to have treatment using a professionally supervised home whitening gel, I take impressions (moulds) of your teeth. From these, a technician makes small flexible bite guards to fit accurately around your teeth. These hold gel of the appropriate concentration for you against your teeth. You then wear the trays for two hours a day, or if more convenient over night, until you achieve the desired result. Typically this takes about two weeks.

Considerations before whitening your teeth

• It is not wise to whiten teeth below the age of 16 because young teeth have large pulps which can be irritated by the gel.

• Your gums should be healthy and you should see the hygienist to remove any deposits which would prevent the active gel reaching areas of enamel.

• Cavities and defective fillings should be fixed to reduce sensitivity. For the same reason, exposed root surfaces need to be covered or desensitised.

• Restorations such as fillings, crowns and veneers will not whiten. So if you are planning to have any of these, do the whitening first so the shade can be matched perfectly. If you already have restorations in your front teeth, these will look darker than the surrounding teeth following whitening and you may want to have them replaced afterwards.

• Make sure your dentist knows precisely what your expectations are. He or she can then assess whether these are realistic or if a different form of treatment might be more appropriate to help you achieve your desired end result.

Side effects

The most common side effect is mild sensitivity to cold during the early stages of treatment. This can usually be controlled with a sensitive formula toothpaste. Be sure to tell your dentist straight away should you experience more severe sensitivity. Occasionally the gums or other soft tissues can be irritated by ill-fitting gel trays. This is easily remedied, so inform your dentist.

How long will my teeth stay white?

The effect will reduce with time, at a speed which varies between individuals. Following power whitening, you need to avoid discolouring food and drink, and cut down on smoking. This is less of a factor with home treatments because, provided you keep your trays and some gel safely stored away, you can ‘top up’ whenever you feel like doing so. Usually a single application will get things back to how they were.

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, or If you would like to read a more in depth report on the pros and cons of each whitening method, go to: The Dentist in Town.

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