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What You Need to Know About Whitening Your Teeth

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What You Need to Know About Whitening Your Teeth

What You Need to Know About Whitening Your Teeth

November 21, 2005
By: Maayan S. Heller for Dental1

Want pearly whites? Who doesn’t? It seems everyone wants the straightest, whitest teeth, and commercial companies and dentists are appeasing the masses.
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Points to remember in your quest for whiter teeth:

Be careful with brushing – don’t brush too hard and use slow, circular motions with a soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid making your teeth vulnerable to extra sensitivity.

Many people are satisfied with the shine they get from brushing twice a day with a toothpaste containing fluoride, flossing at least once per day and the regular cleanings at their dentists’ offices… so consider all options (like a different toothpaste or perfecting your at-home tooth care) before moving on to a chemical whitening product.

If you are interested in using another product to heighten your whiteness, you should start by talking to your dentist – he or she can advise you on whether whitening will be sufficiently effective and safe for your teeth.

Remember that over-the-counter gels and whitening strips can be used more frequently between professional whitening sessions with your dentist – but always check with your dentist!

One thing to consider is that the initial round of home bleaching may take 10 applications on average. A second round or a "touch up" series possibly 4-6 months later will probably only take two to four applications, since theoretically the deeper stains won’t have recurred and you’d be dealing with more superficial staining.

Many people are becoming addicted to the whitening process; it is critical to keep in mind that the whitening process involves chemicals and you need to be careful at all times.

But how safe is whitening, really? And how often can you whiten without seriously sacrificing your mouth’s health?

“Twice a year is probably a good bet,” recommends Dr. David Piech, a dentist in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Many dentists agree on two years, but no scientific research has been done to confirm it. Two years has become the general rule of thumb for most whitening processes, but it’s important to remember that there are differences between the products you can buy over-the-counter (OTC) at drug stores and those administered by your dentist.

The clearest difference is price

Costs will vary from city to city, but no matter where you are, the OTC strips are on the cheapest end of the spectrum, prescription gels used with custom-created trays your dentist makes (you take the gels and dishes home to apply the whitening product yourself over a specific time period) are the mid-range, and power bleaching, which only a dentist can do under strictly-controlled conditions, is the costliest.

But beyond the obvious are differences in side effects, safety and success.

“We’re dealing with extremely powerful chemicals,” says Mohammed Bassiouny, DMD, MSc, PhD., a professor of restorative dentistry at Temple University’s School of Dentistry. Chemicals, he warns, can never be taken lightly.

“Whenever you use strong chemicals in your mouth,” Dr. Bassiouny says, “there is potential for tooth sensitivity and side effects.” Exercising caution, he points out, is particularly important since there aren’t a lot of clinical studies that test or prove effectiveness, side effects or longevity of the whitening process.

The chemical concentration of products, on which your dentist can advise you, is the critical element.

The strips you buy at the pharmacy have the lowest concentration of the bleaching chemical, carbamide peroxide, and therefore can be used more frequently. But they might also be less effective.

“The strips don’t cover all surfaces of the teeth and are more or less restricted to the six front teeth,” says Dr. Bassiouny. They can also be inconsistent, if your teeth are even slightly uneven or your smile shows more than those front teeth.

Since power bleaching utilizes a high concentration of chemicals, most dentists don’t recommend it except in extreme cases. With a lower concentration than power bleaching, the gels, either prescription or even OTC brush-ons, can be more successful.

The prescription trays let all of your teeth’s surfaces get the whitening effect regardless of any unevenness, since they’re designed specifically to your mouth. Brush-on gels allow you to cover each tooth individually for a wider, brighter outcome.

“Concentration is key,” says Dr. Bassiouny. “The higher the concentration of the material, the more wary professionals should be in terms of side effects.”

“Sensitivity around the gum line, especially if there is recession and the root is exposed,” is a concern when applying gels and other bleaching products, says Dr. Piech, who adds that some people may not like the taste and react to that, too.

If your enamel is worn down by anything from receding gums to brushing too hard the uncovering of the teeth’s second layer, the dentin, can lead to further sensitivity and you might experience some pain if your teeth are exposed to heat or cold. Whitening can enhance that sensitivity. (To read a feature that discusses tooth sensitivity, click here)

In these cases the procedure should not be repeated unless recommended by your dentist, suggests Dr. Bassiouny.

If you’re using products provided and monitored by your dentist, the two-year guideline is a good one to follow. And if you’re using the prescription gel process, you can safely use OTC strips or brush-on gels within that time whenever you feel your whites are fading.

Whitening is a chemical procedure, and “there’s a biological factor beyond the aesthetic,” reminds Dr. Bassiouny. So despite the lack of concrete scientific data, it’s essential to consider the chemistry when you consider whitening, “in applying it, in repeating it and in using it in general.”

Getting a whiter, brighter smile is both appealing and possible, but it’s important not to let your desires restrict your ability to whiten with caution.

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