Facts About the White Stuff

In the United States, teeth whitening—also known as bleaching—is the single-most-requested cosmetic procedure among dental patients between the ages of 20 and 50. When teeth whitening’s popularity began to soar approximately five years ago, patients turned to their dentist to have the procedure done. However, in the past few years, many dental product manufacturers have jumped on the whitening bandwagon and developed their own products.

So how should individuals decide what’s best for them?

According to the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS), almost all whitening products will whiten teeth to a certain extent because they all have the same active ingredient, either carbamide or hydrogen peroxide. However, the percentage of the active ingredient in whitening products varies between what a dentist uses and what is contained in over-the-counter products.

Store-bought products contain about 5 percent or less of active whitening ingredients, whereas a dentist will use products that have 10 to 35 percent of active whitening ingredients. Because of this, store-bought whitening products may not be as effective and could take a longer time and require a larger quantity to achieve any significant results.

There are two different whitening systems used by dentists. According to the MDS, chairside bleaching takes roughly 60 to 90 minutes per visit. A chemical solution is applied to the teeth and a special light may be used to help activate the bleaching agent. To complete the process, several visits may be required.

With at-home bleaching, a dentist produces a custom-fitted mouthguard that holds bleaching gel. The mouthguard is worn during the day or at night, and the treatment period varies according to your dentist’s recommendations.

Those who use the store-bought kits lose the benefit of a custom-made mouthguard to apply the gel, and results may not be uniform. Therefore, anyone with moderate to severe discoloration could be disappointed with the results of the store-bought kits.

Patients with only mild, yellowing teeth, either due to age or food and beverage stains, may benefit from diligent use of a store-bought product.

Teeth can become sensitive during the period when a bleaching solution is used. In most cases, this sensitivity is temporary and should lessen once the treatment is finished. Patients are advised to speak to their dentist if any side effects become too bothersome.

Those who are thinking about whitening their teeth should understand that only natural enamel will whiten. This means that if you have had any type of restorative procedures done—such as tooth-colored fillings, bonding, crowns, or veneers on your teeth—those particular teeth will not whiten. Plus the restorations, which used to blend in very nicely with the previous shade of your teeth, will now appear much darker and distinct. This could result in additional dental work to fix the problem.

The MDS notes that most cosmetic procedures, including whitening, are typically not covered by dental insurance, so patients should also take into consideration the costs associated with teeth whitening.

Also, individuals thinking about whitening should consult with their dentist beforehand to ensure their teeth and gums are healthy and to fully understand their treatments and options.


To view the MDS's news release on controversial whitening kiosks at malls, click here.


Massachusetts Dental Society

Two Willow Street
Suite 200
Southborough, MA 01745

(800) 342-8747
(508) 480-0002 fax

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