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Your Guide to Teeth Whitening

Your Guide to Teeth Whitening: © BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo

© BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo

Left to fend for themselves, your “pearly whites” would be anything but—especially considering your fondness for black coffee and red wine. And depending on how white you want your teeth (and how much you’re willing to spend to brighten them) there are a lot of options to consider.

Let’s just be clear: “There’s no inherent health benefit to white teeth,” says Ohio-based dentist Matthew Messina, DDS. White teeth may look purty, but our Chiclets aren’t designed to be movie-starlet white. That said, if whitening your teeth will lead you to brush more thoroughly or otherwise take better care of your them, Messina says he’s all for it.

Here, he provides an overview of your choices, the level of whitening you can expect, and what each may cost you.


BAKING SODA
You could sprinkle some baking soda on your brush if you’re really strapped for cash. Or just pick up the pastes that come pre-loaded with the powdery chemical compound. The research on its whitening power is mixed, but baking soda likely has some mild stain-removal capabilities.

OTHER WHITENING TOOTHPASTES
Baking soda aside, almost all whitening methods use hydrogen peroxide to brighten your teeth. That’s true of pastes, strips, and the stuff your dentist would use. “It’s just a matter of the hydrogen peroxide’s concentration and how it’s held against the teeth,” Messina explains. At the weak end of the spectrum are the whitening pastes you can pick up at CVS without a prescription. These usually include a 1- to 1.5-percent concentration of hydrogen peroxide. These can remove some surface junk. “But they won’t penetrate below the enamel,” Messina says.

WHITENING GELS
These are a step up from OTC pastes in terms of both strength and cost, Messina says. And they’re effective. You just have to be sure you’re applying them uniformly and letting them sit on your teeth for the prescribed amount of time, he says. “If you don’t spread them evenly, you can get a patchy look.” Also, if you get the gel on your gums, that could lead to discomfort and sensitivity. “You won’t get vast amounts of whitening,” he says. “But they’ll whiten your teeth more than a paste.”

WHITENING STRIPS
These press-on strips are more or less the same thing as the gels—just with an improved delivery method. The strips help keep the gel in place, and also stop your tongue and saliva from interfering. “All of these strip or gel products contain 6- to 8-percent hydrogen peroxide, and they’re all similarly effective,” Messina says. Again, just keep them away from your gums.

WHITENING TRAYS FROM YOUR DENTIST
Think of this as an upgraded version of the OTC strips. Your dentist will mold the tray to fit your mouth, therefore reducing the chances you’ll get the whitening agent on your gums. And that agent will be stronger—in concentrations ranging from 10 to 15 percent, Messina says. “You can get some impressive results from these,” he adds. But you still have to go through the trouble of filling them with gel and holding them in your mouth once a day for a week or two, he explains. Also, insurance usually won’t cover the cost, which can run to a few hundred bucks.

IN-OFFICE TREATMENTS
If you want your dentist to do all the whitening work for you, there are several treatments that involve masking agents to protect your gums and teeth whitening peroxides with concentrations ranging up to 35 percent, Messina says. The peroxide solution is activated by a light source, and you’ll undergo a few 10- to 15-minute whitening sessions spread over a couple hours at your dentist’s office. “You can get 10 to 12 shades lighter,” he says. But it could cost you more than $1,000 out of pocket.

Once you decide which way to go, keep in mind: excessive whitening can make your teeth appear slightly blue or translucent—like tiny, neatly aligned jellyfish. “So don’t go nuts,” Messina says. Also, whitening products don’t work on tartar, which is the hardened plaque your dentist chips off during your office visits. “If your teeth aren’t clean and healthy, you aren’t going to get good results from any whitening product,” he says.

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