Whether it’s from drinking too much coffee or years of enamel wear, yellowing teeth can plague anyone. The tips and tricks to whiten teeth offered online are boundless, but do any of them work?
New York cosmetic dentist Timothy Chase, DDS explains that DIY teeth whitening could lead to more harm than good. “Using cheap kits or home remedies may cause gum pain and tooth sensitivity,” Dr. Chase says.
So, we asked the experts to help us tell fact from fiction when it comes to at-home whitening, and what we can do to avoid making our oral health worse in the process.
Myth: Toothpastes that advertise whitening are effective.
This would seem like a no-brainer. They’re sold in stores, so it’s not like you’re making it yourself, and whitening is written right on the tin! If it says it whitens, then it probably does, right?
Truth: Whitening toothpastes are too rough on teeth.
Los Altos, CA cosmetic dentist Joseph Field, DDS always tells his patients to skip toothpastes that advertise whitening. “The whitening toothpastes are not worth it. They often can be really abrasive,” Dr. Field explains. “And they can cause more sensitivity, rather than really seeing an improvement in whitening.”
Dr. Chase notes that Crest’s 3D Whitestrips are a much better option than any whitening toothpaste. “Crest Whitestrips are a safe and inexpensive at home way to whiten your teeth,” Dr. Chase says.
Myth: Charcoal whitens teeth and detoxes gums.
Charcoal is all over dental care. You can find it in toothpaste from the dollar store to high-end brands, and there are even online guides to make your own. If it’s so popular, it must be doing something, right?
Truth: Charcoal is too abrasive to use daily.
When it comes to using charcoal to remove stains, Dr. Field is cautiously optimistic. “I’ll put it this way: The jury is still out on how useful charcoal for whitening,” he says. “It does do a good job at removing stains, though it doesn’t do it as effectively as a dentist can do in office. It’s not by itself a whitening product, it’s more of a stain remover.”
The real issue comes with trying to use charcoal daily. According to Atlanta cosmetic dentist Ronald Goldstein, DDS, that stain-removing quality can be detrimental to your enamel with too much use. “The problem with charcoal in toothpaste is that it is an abrasive and used daily, can begin to wear away your tooth enamel,” Dr. Goldstein explains.
Wearing away your enamel certainly won’t make them look whiter, as the layer below it, dentin, is significantly darker in tone. The thinner your enamel becomes, the more yellow they can appear. “I have seen patients that have had their teeth become more yellow due to enamel abrasion,” Dr. Goldstein notes.
Myth: Oil pulling whitens teeth.
Dating back thousands of years, oil pulling as we know it is an Ayurvedic practice originating from Southeast Asia. Gargling or swishing with oils like sesame or coconut oil was prescribed by practitioners to align a person’s doshas, which come together to make up a person’s overall wellbeing.
Nowadays, oil pulling products and DIY whitening tips usually suggest using coconut oil to whiten teeth.
Truth: There is no evidence that oil pulling can whiten teeth.
Oil pulling for oral health has only just begun to be studied by the west. Some small pilot studies do indicate that oil pulling could be useful in reducing bacteria colony count, but there is not enough evidence to say much else.
A meta-analysis of studies on oil pulling noted that it did not appear to be significantly effective on plaque or gingivitis. Only one study has studied the effectiveness of oil pulling on teeth whitening, which had some positive results. That study, though, was only conducted on 60 patients.
“There is no proof that the ancient technique of oil pulling can whiten your teeth,” Dr. Goldstein says.
Myth: Hydrogen peroxide is entirely safe.
Hydrogen peroxide, or carbamide peroxide, is the active ingredient in most teeth whiteners, including the ones used by dentists. That means it’s proven to whiten teeth. So it’s a winner, right?
Truth: Hydrogen peroxide can lead to gum burning.
“What we use in whitening is carbamide peroxide, which is a form of hydrogen peroxide,” Dr. Field explains. “So, all whiteners are going to have some amount of that in their formulations. And it all works.”
But there’s a few caveats.
Dr. Chase explains that swishing with straight peroxide is a bad idea. “Peroxide in some form and concentration is in most whitening treatments, but straight peroxide should not be used as it can burn the gums with prolonged exposure at full strength.”
When you’re looking for an effective whitener, you want to make sure that product stays only on your teeth. “The problem with carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide is that it can be pretty caustic to gum tissue,” Dr. Field says. “So, using it the right way and isolating it to the teeth as much as possible helps prevent irritation or inflammation to the gum tissue.”
Myth: You can whiten all your teeth at home.
Toothpastes these days claim to be able to whiten your teeth multiple shades, so you should be able to address discoloration at home. Will you ever need to see a dentist ever again?
Truth: Some teeth will be a lot harder to whiten than others.
All joking aside, you will absolutely need to see a dentist again.
Products promise a lot, but the reality is that dental health is a lot more complex than toothpaste ads make it seem. While you can make significant progress with DIY whitening at home, there are cases that only a dentist will be able to treat effectively.
“Many toothpastes claim they will whiten your teeth multiple shades, but beware of such claims,” Dr. Goldstein explains. “If your teeth are more a yellow shade, they should bleach well either in the dental office or at home. Teeth that are grey, dark brown or blue will be much harder to bleach, and I advise having the dental office perform the task.”
It can also be difficult for whitening products to reach your enamel, because of the buildup of calculus, or hardened plaque.
“One of the problems is if your teeth are generally stained and you have calculus build up and things like that, then the whitening is not going to do a great job getting through that,” Dr. Field explains. “So, getting your teeth cleaned beforehand to remove stains and calculus will help those products work a lot better.”
Why is it important to see a professional?
When a dentist does a whitening treatment, they’re also assessing the health of your teeth for underlying issues and potential concerns down the road.
Dr. Goldstein explains that your dentist can also evaluate your teeth for sensitivity issues. “The safest way to bleach teeth is to first have your dentist take X-rays of your teeth which will disclose just how large your pulp canal is, especially in your front teeth,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Your nerves and blood vessels are housed in your pulp canal and if it is very large, chances are you may have sensitivity with certain bleaching treatments. Then your dentist can advise you how and when to bleach that will be comfortable for you.”
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