About a third of Americans are unhappy with the appearance of their smile, and if you ask them why, they are most likely to say because their teeth are discolored. Yellowed or gray teeth can make your smile look older and unhealthy.
Why are your teeth discolored? Usually, it’s because of what we call extrinsic stains, or surface stains. Surface stains accumulate on your teeth because of the foods and drinks that you consume. These leave stains that get trapped in the ridges on your tooth enamel (the outer layer of your teeth).
Your teeth might feel smooth most of the time, but they actually have many small ridges that can allow long molecules to get trapped there. The amount of ridges can increase over time and with acid exposure, so the longer you go between checkups, the more prone to stains your teeth are likely to be.
It’s important to understand that not all foods that stain your teeth are dark in color. Acidic foods like white wine can increase the ridges in your teeth and make them more susceptible to stains. Other times, foods might be light in color, but the chemicals in them can turn dark over time.
Teeth can also get discolored because of intrinsic staining. This is when the discoloration comes from within the tooth, this might be because of defects in the enamel, or from even deeper sources. If a tooth is hit, it can develop a bruise, or if it becomes infected, it can turn dark. Fluorosis and antibiotics can also cause tooth discoloration. In general, intrinsic stains don’t respond well to teeth whitening. In these cases, alternate treatments like veneers might be recommended.
Three Whitening Principles
Teeth whitening typically works using one of three principles: prevention, abrasion, and chemical removal. All have different strengths and drawbacks, and it’s often a good idea to combine the approaches.
You might think that preventing stains won’t whitening them, but that’s not true. It’s not like stains get laid down on your teeth and stay there forever. The process of teeth staining is a constant give-and-take between stains being deposited and stains being removed. If you can improve stain prevention, over time the natural process of removing stains will whiten your teeth.
This is a slow process, but it does work, especially if you get regular dental checkups. Professional cleanings remove many stains.
Abrasion is the principle of wearing away the stained enamel. It his how most whitening toothpastes work, and it is also common in whitening gum.
Abrasion works well in the short term, but used aggressively or over the long term, it can damage your enamel. Since the enamel is the white part of the teeth, this makes it counterproductive. So abrasion whitening should be used conservatively.
Chemical Stain Removal
Chemical stain removal uses chemicals that break down the staining molecules, removing them from your teeth. The two main types of chemicals used are acids and oxidizers.
Acids are dangerous for teeth whitening. Like abrasion, they can readily remove the tooth enamel, which means that although they might work well over the short term, they can cause your teeth to yellow over time.
Oxidizers like peroxide more specifically attack the staining molecules. Although they can remove some minerals from tooth enamel, they don’t cause widespread enamel damage, even with moderate daily use.
Three Whitening Approaches
From the three whitening principles above, there are many different whitening techniques that have been developed. These also can be broken down into three different whitening approaches–three different ways that you can approach whitening your teeth.
The first way you can approach whitening is trying to whiten your teeth at home using materials that you put together yourself. The Internet is full of potential whitening solutions that you can try to remove stains from your teeth.
The problem is that many of these whitening solutions are either acidic, abrasive, or both. The worst solutions combine acid and abrasion, because the acid softens your tooth enamel, allowing the abrasive to wear it away. Clinical studies of these types of solutions show that they don’t work–and can be damaging.
The DIY solutions that have the most promise are those that use the same principles as OTC or professional whitening, just at a lower strength, such as rinsing with a weak peroxide solution.
Over-the-counter (OTC) whitening approaches usually rely on chemical stain removal with oxidizers (peroxide), though some whitening toothpastes can be abrasive and damaging. Whiteners that you buy at the store are, in general, both safe and effective when used according to the directions. This has been shown in numerous clinical studies and trials, so there’s no reason not to consider this type of whitening.
However, there are some limitations to the OTC whitening approach. First, the whiteners depend on you being able to use them expertly. For example, strips and trays can be hard to fit evenly on your teeth. This means that you can end up with uneven whitening results. This can produce the opposite effect you want. Instead of making your smile look attractively white, you end up creating patches that are noticeably dark.
Second, the whitening is limited because the strength of the whitening compounds used in these approaches is much less than that in professional whitening. Your teeth will get whiter, but maybe not as white as you want them to be.
Finally, because the whitener can be hard to apply just to your teeth, you might get some of it on your gums, which can cause irritation, making them red and inflamed. Sometimes, it might even lead to receding gums.
Professional whitening usually uses chemical stain removal. Most often, peroxide is the oxidizer. Professional whitening can use higher concentrations of peroxide than OTC solutions, and because you have a dentist overseeing the procedure, the results tend to be brighter and more even–you can avoid missing spots that then tend to look much darker when you smile.
Plus, with a dentist monitoring your progress, you can trust that the procedure is going to properly handled. You can avoid damage to your enamel and your gums, and just enjoy the bright white results.
Professional whitening is sometimes done in a dental office, which can achieve good whitening results in a single visit to the office. However, for the best whitening results, most dentists recommend take-home whitening approaches. These differ from OTC approaches because they use stronger solutions, and the whitening trays fit better, which extends the effective time that your teeth are actually whitening. At élan in Tulsa, we offer both these approaches as well as teeth bleaching, designed to penetrate more deeply into the tooth.
Is Teeth Whitening Safe?
The safety of teeth whitening depends on the principles and approaches of whitening you choose. Professional chemical stain removal is the safest whitening approach, with little risk. With this approach, the only common side effect is tooth sensitivity. Usually, dentists can tweak the formula to reduce or eliminate sensitivity.
DIY whitening with acidic and abrasive whiteners is the most dangerous. You are more likely to experience permanent enamel damage with these approaches. Using this approach to teeth whitening, you might put your teeth at risk of cavities, infection, and even loss.
Teeth Whitening Cost
The cost of DIY whiteners depends on the formulation you use. Although it can be inexpensive, it is not worth the risk.
OTC whiteners range from a couple dollars to a couple hundred dollars.
Professional teeth whitening in Tulsa can cost as little as $400 for regular prices, with discounts available.