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Is Whitening Really Safe … and Is It Right For Me?

Updated on February 21, 2011

Nothing conveys youth and confidence like flashing a bright white smile, and it seems everyone from teens to seniors want to know more about whitening options… and why not? There are a wide variety of products available commercially and through the dental office that make it is easier, safer and more affordable than you might think for virtually everyone to perk up their pearly-whites.

Whitening is a term that is used to cover a broad range of products and procedures, but there are some important terminology distinctions to be made. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the term “bleaching” is may only be used for products which whiten the teeth beyond their natural color. This applies strictly to products that contain bleaching agent – most often hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. The term “whitening,” on the other hand, refers to restoring a tooth’s natural color by removing surface stain and debris, so any product that cleans (such as toothpaste) can be considered a whitener. Understanding these differences is the first step in choosing the right product and procedure to meet your needs.

Skeptics often wonder if whitening and bleaching is too good to be true… the results look great, but is it really safe? The answer is, “absolutely!” The Food and Drug Administration only approves products for use in the mouth if they are shown safe and effective when used according to manufacturer’s recommendations. That said, there is a right and wrong way to use any product and you can always have too much of a good thing. Consumers should be aware that they are taking risks if they use whitening services outside the dental office, such as at a salon. Recently, the American Dental Association asked the FDA to regulate these services for the safety of the public. All whitening and bleaching products are not created equal; get the best possible result and avoid complications or disappointment by asking yourself what your expectations are. Choose the right product, and be sure you understand the limitations of your choice; it will differ depending upon the product and a variety of individual factors including your dental and periodontal (gum) health, and any fillings or crowns you may have.


Are you hoping for a dramatic change in your appearance or something more subtle? Those seeking a dramatic impact may wish to consider one of two types of bleaching procedures performed in the dental office; the material used in both of these methods is more concentrated than what is available over the counter. A typical one-hour whitening procedure uses a light activated bleaching material and typically has the most dramatic, long lasting effect. Most people touch up their new smile periodically with an at-home product after this procedure. Alternatively, the dentist may make a model of your teeth and create custom fitted plastic trays that are filled with bleaching material and worn over the teeth at home. The tray method takes about two weeks of repeated application and requires touch-ups periodically.

Over the counter white strips are an effective low cost choice for those who may not be looking for a show-stopping impact, those who don’t want to replace fillings, or if you are just unsure whether your teeth will be too sensitive to tolerate a procedure that uses a stronger bleach concentration. After using an over the counter product, you can always upgrade to an in office procedure later.


Whitening toothpastes are generally abrasive and they work by polishing off surface stain; for people who build up stain quickly these can be an inexpensive smile pick-me-up. Use these products in conjunction with bleaching products, or instead of them if your main concern is daily stain from tobacco or foods. Watch for tooth or gum sensitivity, and consider alternating use with standard fluoride toothpaste to resolve the problem.

Mouth rinses that claim to whiten work because they help keep stain causing substances from sticking to the surface of teeth. The effect of these rinses in minimal; they don’t contain bleach and they don’t change the color of teeth. However, they are safe and may be a little added “boost” for those who already have a nice white smile and don’t need much change.

Things to think about

White fillings and crowns don’t change color when teeth are bleached, but that doesn’t mean that whitening isn’t an option! Often, the dentist will recommend bleaching the teeth to the ideal shade and then replacing older fillings or crowns to match. This will leave you with a beautiful, uniform appearance. The roots of teeth are always slightly darker than the enamel; so if you have receding gums, be prepared for the likelihood that the exposed roots will whiten differently than the rest of the tooth.

Keep in mind that regardless of cost no whitening or bleaching procedure is permanent; how long the effect lasts depends heavily on dietary habits and smoking. Avoid coffee, tea, dark sodas, red wine and foods that have strong pigment. Drinking through a straw will help, as will through brushing and flossing to remove stain causing substances. Regardless of the procedure you choose, touch ups should be expected over time.

A major consideration when deciding whether whitening your teeth is right for you is your general oral health. Cavities or gum disease are present can make a bleaching painful, so be sure that you have a dental examination and complete any recommended treatment before beginning a cosmetic whitening procedure. Bleaching can cause sensitivity even in a healthy mouth, but the good news is that it is temporary. Use desensitizing toothpaste before, during and after the procedure; and you may need to give your teeth a longer rest between applications of home products.

Don’t be misled by advertising! Teeth are naturally yellowish, and as we age, it is normal for teeth to darken. No matter how much you bleach them, they will never be truly white and the end result depends on how dark they were when you started. Don’t over use products striving for an unnatural color; too much bleaching will make the teeth sensitive. Imperfections in the enamel can sometimes cause unevenness in the whitening result too, but most of the time the overall change is stunning and any minor imperfections are noticeable only to you – up close in the mirror.

Almost everyone can significantly improve their smile – safely and simply – with a professional or over the counter bleaching procedure or a whitening product. Ask your oral health professional which products would best suit your needs and above all, be realistic about your expectations.


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