Definition and Overview

Teeth whitening is a common procedure in general dentistry performed by licensed dental professionals including dentists, registered dental hygienists and dental therapists with the goal to lighten teeth color and make them look whiter. Unlike teeth bleaching, teeth whitening is designed to restore the tooth’s surface color by removing debris and dirt.

Causes of Teeth Discoloration

Each tooth is made up of two layers, the dentin and the enamel. The enamel is the topmost surface of the tooth and underneath it is the dentin, which happens to have a natural yellowish hue. Over time, as the tooth enamel gets thinner with age, the yellowish surface of the dentin becomes more visible. This makes a person’s tooth look yellowish rather than white.

Other possible causes of teeth staining include:

  • Frequent consumption of dark foods or heavily colored foods such as carrots and oranges
  • Frequent consumption of caffeinated drinks such as colas, coffee, and tea
  • Cigarette smoking

Teeth Whitening Options to Choose From

At Home Care

There are several solutions to discolored teeth; ranging from products that are bought over the counter to procedures that are available at the dentist’s office. For those who want to try readily available whitening systems before seeking professional help, the following at-home teeth whitening products can be taken advantage of:

  • Whitening toothpastes – Toothpastes that contain chemical bleaching agents remove surface stains and whiten teeth by about one shade.

  • Whitening gels – Peroxide-based whitening gels are applied to the surface of the teeth using a small brush. Although quick and effective, these gels can only provide sustained results for a limited amount of time, i.e. around four months.

  • Whitening strips – Over-the-counter whitening strips are thin, peroxide-coated strips that are placed on the surface of the teeth. These are applied twice per day for 14 consecutive days and are removed 30 minutes after application. Results can also last up to four months.

  • Mouthwashes and rinses – Whitening rinses are easier to use as they can take the place of the ordinary mouthwash. Thus, aside from the whitening benefit, they also help freshen breath, reduce dental plaque, improve gum health, and ensure better overall mouth hygiene. Unfortunately, since rinses only stay in contact with teeth for about a minute twice daily, they tend to take up to 12 weeks to produce visible effects.

Although there are many at-home teeth whitening options, it is still best to see a dentist who can recommend the best method to use based on the severity of the staining and the overall condition of the teeth. These include:

  • Tooth whitening trays – These trays, which are filled with a whitening gel, are placed inside the mouth for 20-30 minutes twice a day. When worn, the trays expose the teeth to peroxide-based bleaching agents. Due to the length of exposure, these are highly effective even for heavy stains.

  • In-office whitening procedure – Dentists offer bleaching procedures that are conducted in their offices, where they directly apply the bleaching agent on the tooth surface. Heat, laser, or a special light is then used to activate the agents, causing almost instantaneous teeth whitening. For highly visible results, several visits to the dentist’s office may be required. Although fast and guaranteed, this is also the most expensive teeth whitening technique available today.

No matter what product or procedure is used, the results of teeth whitening technique will still depend on:

  • Overall condition of the teeth
  • Severity of the staining
  • Strength or concentration of the bleaching agent

Limitations in Teeth Whitening

Not everybody who wants to have their teeth whitened can safely do so. Teeth whitening is not recommended for:

  • Children under 16 years of age
  • Pregnant women
  • Lactating women
  • Those with sensitive teeth
  • Those who are allergic to peroxide, which is the main whitening agent used
  • Those with receding gums and other gum diseases
  • Those who have dental restorations such as crowns and fillings
  • Those with severely worn enamel

  • American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry

  • Massachusetts Dental Society: “Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry.”
  • British Dental Health Foundation: “Cosmetic Dentistry.”
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