Girl with White Teeth

The Ultimate Teeth Whitening Guide

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Teeth whitening is one of the most sought-after cosmetic treatments in the US. Whether you’re giving your smile a complete overhaul with clear aligner treatment and you want whiter teeth to complement your new look, or you simply want to clean away years of coffee and tobacco stains, whiter teeth can give your confidence a huge boost.

There are various treatment options available, which we’ve reviewed in depth for you here.

Laser treatment

How does it work?

Laser treatment is a little bit of a misleading name. True, lasers are used in the process, but it isn’t the laser itself which whitens your teeth. In fact, laser treatment uses the same kinds of bleaching agents that are found in whitening strips and gels.

However, the key difference here is the time that whitening takes and that is where the laser comes in. Basically, the laser heats up the whitening paste used to help it to oxidize much, much faster. This is what creates the bleaching effect, and it means that instead of sitting around waiting for gels to get to work, it actually just takes minutes.

The obvious drawback? You can’t do laser treatment at home – it has to be carried out at a qualified dentist. And one treatment isn’t enough – you’ll need to go back 4-5 times for the full treatment process to be completed. So, you need to weigh up whether this inconvenience is worth the fact you won’t need as many treatments, or as long waiting for it to get to work.

How effective is it?

Laser teeth whitening is extremely effective. In just a few short visits to the dentist you will see a much whiter smile. It isn’t permanent, but no teeth whitening solution is, and it could be that one series of laser treatments will set you up with a good base which can be maintained with less severe treatments, such as whitening trays.

Because you’re being monitored by a trained dentist, the strength of the bleaching agent will also be a lot higher than any at-home product, because it can be administered safely. While at-home options will typically max out at around 10% concentration for hydrogen peroxide, the paste used in laser treatment will be somewhere between 22% and 35%. This means whiter, brighter teeth but it also increases the chance of sensitivity.

How much does it cost?

Laser teeth whitening costs will vary and it could cost anything from $400 through to $1500, depending on how many sessions of treatment you need. Your dentist will give you a clear explanation of their costs involved but they may not be able to guarantee you how much the total cost will be, as they may not be able to accurately predict how many treatments your teeth will require.

With that in mind, you may need to prepare yourself for the fact that, if your budget is limited, you could end up with teeth that are whiter but not as white as they could be, if you cannot afford all the treatments the dentist ends up recommending.

So what’s the verdict?

If you have the budget available and you want super-white teeth fast, then laser whitening is an exceptionally effective solution. Your dentist will explain the potential costs and issues around sensitivity to you, and you should understand that it could mean making multiple trips to your dentist. And while the treatment itself is quite fast, bear in mind that you may be waiting around for your appointment if the dentist is running behind schedule.

Ease-of-use: 7/10
Effectiveness: 10/10
Value for money: 9/10

Whitening gel

How does it work?

Whitening gel treatment is often referred to as whitening trays. That’s because you’ll be applying gel to your teeth and then keeping it in place using trays that are very similar to clear aligners, although they’re thicker as they’re designed to be robust enough to keep their shape despite the chemical agent used to whiten your teeth. (Check out our Snow review here)

The gel contains the same type of whitening chemicals as in laser treatment and whitening strips. It’s a lower concentration than that used in laser treatment because it’s being held against your teeth for a longer time, and so would otherwise damage the enamel.

Whitening trays give you the option of treatment at your dentist or at home. If you go to the dentist, they will create custom molds designed to fit your teeth for the best results. You may use these in the dentist or they may send you home with them. Otherwise, fully at-home solutions will give standard trays that may not be snug, but can just be used for any mouth.

How effective is it?

Whitening trays are very effective but they take time. You will definitely see a much whiter smile – often better than whitening strips – but you may need to wait a month before your treatment is complete with an at-home product.

Dentist-applied gels can be faster, but you may need to make multiple trips to your dentist if you’re having your treatment in the office, so it can be less convenient.

How much does it cost?

At-home whitening trays will cost you between $100 and $200, but with this you’ll get all the gel you need for a full month’s treatment. Some may also come with UV lights to accelerate the process, and if these are wireless then the cost could be a little more.

Treatment with your dentist will start at $200 but may rise much higher, depending on whether you are treated at the clinic and how many treatments you require.

So what’s the verdict?

Whitening gels, or whitening trays, are probably the second-most effective treatment available behind laser treatment but they take time, and they cost more than whitening strips too. You need to decide on how you balance cost versus effectiveness, but for the whitest smile you can get at home, whitening trays can’t be beaten.

Ease-of-use: 8/10
Effectiveness: 9/10
Value for money: 9/10

Whitening strips

How do they work?

Whitening strips are literally plastic strips that have a whitening agent on them. You simply peel the backing off the strip and place it directly onto your teeth – you’ll use one long strip for your top teeth and one for your lower teeth.

Once you’ve placed it on your teeth, you’ll just need to fold it over so that it sticks to the back of your teeth, and then leave it for thirty minutes. Once the time is up, simply remove the strip and dispose of it.

It’s recommended you do it once a day. You can do it twice a day, if you want faster results, but you shouldn’t do it any more than that or you would risk damaging your tooth enamel. The American Dental Association recommends only using them once per day. Children under the age of 12 should not use whitening strips.

The strips will only whiten natural teeth, so don’t expect miracles on any crowns or fillings. And you should only brush your teeth after using a strip, gently. Don’t brush your teeth immediately before you use a whitening strip.

How effective are they?

Whitening strips are a popular at-home method because of how easy they are to use. In terms of effectiveness, you’re likely to start seeing results after three continuous days of use. You should continue until you have used the strips for 14 days, at which point you should see the full results. Make sure you don’t miss a day otherwise you won’t get the same continuous whitening effect.

If you then look after your teeth by using special toothpaste to protect your mouth, you can expect your teeth to remain whiter for around 12 months. After this period, you may wish to top up your teeth whitening treatment, although it’s unlikely you’ll need the full 14 day treatment to see the same results – a few days should get you back to the level of whiteness you saw originally.

How much do they cost?

There are two options when it comes to buying Crest whitening strips. You could opt for the Professional Effects packet which is stronger, and retails at around $60-$70 for 20 strips (so 10 days’ use). If your teeth are more sensitive or you’re just concerned about using stronger products then you can buy the Gentle Routine strips. The agent is less concentrated and so the whitening process is more subtle, with one packet costing $45 for 28 strips (enough to use for 14 days).

So what’s the verdict?

Whitening strips are an extremely popular method of teeth whitening and it’s easy to see why. They aren’t too expensive, they’re simple to use and they have clear, effective results. You may need to top up every year, but at this price point it’s not too painful to do so, and the topping-up process is fast and convenient.

If you aren’t confident using whitening gels, and want a simple solution that’ll whiten your teeth without the dentist visits, whitening strips could be the perfect option.

Ease-of-use: 9/10
Effectiveness: 8/10
Value for money: 9/10

Whitening toothpaste

How does it work?

There are two different types of whitening toothpaste. Most normal whitening toothpastes use mild agents such as silica to help scrub your teeth more, removing the stains that darken your teeth. These whitening agents aren’t as strong as those in other treatments, but they are designed for daily use – you don’t have to stop using whitening toothpaste after a set period of time, but you can make it your regular toothpaste instead. The changes you see will be more gradual.

Other whitening toothpastes may include a substance that is designed to stick to your teeth and give them the impression that they are whiter – essentially painting your teeth a shade whiter. These aren’t the most effective and should be avoided if you want serious, long-lasting results.

Using any whitening toothpaste is simple. It just replaces your normal toothpaste. Use it at least twice a day, ideally after you’ve eaten, and brush your teeth for two minutes using a typical pea-size amount. Don’t rinse your mouth when you’ve finished – you should always leave any toothpaste residue to protect and clean your teeth.

How effective is it?

Whitening toothpastes simply aren’t as effective as other forms of tooth whitening treatment. They won’t be able to improve the natural shade of your teeth and can only clean away surface stains. If you don’t already have white teeth, or you’ve stained them heavily with years of coffee drinking or smoking, then whitening toothpaste won’t be strong enough to have the desired impact.

Whitening toothpaste is really useful if you’re combining it with another form of treatment. It’ll help protect your newly-bleached teeth from the surface stains that would normally undo your good work. You will still need to be topped up in future, but you’ll enjoy a brighter smile for longer by using whitening toothpaste twice daily.

How much does it cost?

There are many different whitening toothpastes available at a range of prices, but don’t just assume that the more expensive options are going to produce much better results. You’re still limited by the potential of whitening toothpaste.

A good whitening toothpaste from a named brand like Crest will likely set you back between $8-$12, which is a lot more than a standard toothpaste. Some brands may be cheaper at around the $6 mark, while those that cost $20+ should be avoided – they won’t give you much better results than the cheaper options, so the premium cost isn’t worth it.

So what’s the verdict?

If you’re buying whitening toothpaste as a cheap solution to undo years of staining, you’re going to be disappointed. The agents in whitening toothpaste simply aren’t designed to re-color your teeth and will only scrub away mild surface stains.

However, as a partner for other whitening treatments, whitening toothpaste comes into its own. It’ll help to preserve that whiter smile for longer, and give your teeth a great clean.

Ease-of-use: 10/10
Effectiveness: 3/10
Value for money: 7/10

What about if you’re undergoing other treatments?

Often, people will make the decision to start improving their smile and then want to do everything at once. So there are a lot of people who want to straighten their teeth and whiten them at the same time.

Unfortunately it’s not usually easy to whiten your teeth whilst also straightening them. You would normally need to wait until your alignment treatment was complete before you then started whitening treatment. It does mean that you need to wait a little bit longer for your perfect smile, but the results will be worth it in the end.

If you’re using metal braces, you definitely won’t be able to use any whitening product. If you’ve chosen clear aligners, there are some whitening gels which can be used in conjunction with your aligners – you simply apply the gel while you have removed your aligners. Some aligner providers have their own whitening gel that you can order along with your aligners.

It’s not recommended that you use whitening strips with your clear aligners – they need to be kept on your teeth for 30 minutes and since your aligners have to be worn for 22 hours a day, that only leaves 90 minutes for all your meals and brushing your teeth.

Many find that it’s best to simply use whitening toothpaste until your aligner treatment is complete, before switching to a more effective treatment. The toothpaste will be a starting point, and once you’ve finished your treatment you can undergo something more intensive. But if you’re insistent on whitening your teeth as they are straightened, look at clear aligner providers that also offer whitening gel.

What’s the best whitening product for children?

It is highly recommended by the American Dental Association that bleaching agents are not used by children and adolescents in order to whiten their teeth. Your teeth will still develop even once they have come through, and so may not need to be whitened artificially.

If you are convinced of your child’s need to have their teeth whitened, you should avoid the more potent options available including professional strips or gels, as the agents used could damage the enamel and cause more discomfort for younger teeth.

Speak to your dentist if you want to know more about the best whitening options for children and adolescents. They will be able to examine the need of the patient, their general oral health, and made a suitable recommendation that won’t damage the enamel.

Teeth Whitening FAQs

Are teeth whitening strips safe?

Teeth whitening strips from reputable companies such as Crest are perfectly safe to use. None of the ingredients in the whitening strips are harmful to enamel, and whitening strips only tend to damage teeth if they are left too long. As long as you follow the instructions of your whitening strips you shouldn’t have any problems.

If you buy a less well-known brand, you just need to ensure you check the ingredients. The main danger with whitening strips is if the percentage of hydrogen peroxide is above 10% - this will likely damage the enamel that protects your teeth. If you aren’t sure whether a product is safe, check with your dentist or orthodontist.

Are teeth whitening lights safe?

The lights used in whitening kits to accelerate the bleaching agent are normally safe if you use them correctly. However, as they used ultraviolet (UV) light, you must be careful otherwise you could risk damaging your gums.

Always follow the instructions carefully, and don’t use lights for longer than you’re told to. If you have any doubts about whether you’re using it correctly, take your light to your dentist or orthodontist and ask them for advice. They’ll also be able to tell you whether the light is safe and discuss alternatives if you aren’t confident.

Can teeth whitening strips expire?

Yes – whitening strips do have an expiry date and it’s not recommended that you use them after this date. They won’t be dangerous, but the whitening agent will become less potent over time, and so you won’t get the same results as you would with strips that are in date.

Check the box to find the expiration date. Generally, whitening strips will have a shelf life of around one year, but remember that you may not have bought them when they were just manufactured. If you’re planning on topping up your whitening after a year of a bright smile, you’ll probably need to buy fresh strips.

Can teeth whitening cause cold sores?

The materials and chemicals used in teeth whitening procedures should not give you cold sores. Cold sores are caused by a virus, although you may be more susceptible if your lips are stretched (such as when you’re placing whitening strips or using a whitening UV light as part of a mouth shield).

Make sure you follow proper hygiene, washing any tools before you put them in your mouth, and you shouldn’t have any issues with cold sores during your whitening treatment. Bear in mind that cold sores are contagious, so if you have a family member with a cold sore, avoid kissing them and be sure to be extra careful when cleaning before you whiten your teeth.

What teeth whitening do celebrities use?

There is no single answer for which teeth whitening celebrities use, but most will have a private dentist that will give them treatment. In most cases it will be laser whitening as it is faster and more effective, meaning celebrities can carry on with their normal activities without having to work on maintaining their white smile.

Celebrities may get involved with brands to promote their whitening products. Snow, who offer a whitening gel service, have a number of social promotions with various well-known faces. Take this at face value (no pun intended), as the celebrity may have simply posed with the product in exchange for a fee.

What should I do if I experience pain when whitening?

The first thing you should do if you experience any pain while using a whitening product is to check that you’ve followed the instructions to the letter. Most pain is the result of using a product incorrectly, and accidentally getting agent on your gums.

If you’re sure that’s not the case, then consider switching to a product with a lower percentage of hydrogen peroxide, which is most likely the irritant. Failing that, visit your dentist and take your whitening product with you. They’ll be able to examine it and determine whether it’s suitable for you to use, along with suggesting alternatives.

How long after teeth whitening can I eat?

It depends on your method of teeth whitening, in terms of when you can next eat. For normal, non-staining foods it will vary from 30 minutes (for whitening toothpaste) through to 2-6 hours for strips and gels, depending on the product. Some laser treatments will require you to avoid eating for 24 hours after your treatment.

When it comes to foods that can cause your teeth to stain – coffee, acidic beverages, sugary foods etc. – you should aim to cut these out of your diet if you want to maintain your smile. You certainly shouldn’t eat them within 72 hours of your whitening treatment otherwise they could cause the stains to reappear quickly.

What is the best teeth whitening for sensitive teeth?

Many whitening products market themselves as being suitable for people with sensitive teeth. Different treatments will have different concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, which is agent most likely to cause issues for anyone with sensitive teeth.

If your teeth are sensitive, and you have concerns, look for a whitening product with a lower percentage of hydrogen peroxide. As a guide, anything around 9-9.5% would be considered high for an at-home treatment, so you want something lower than that.

Whitening toothpastes will always be the most gentle option but they are also the least effective. Consider Crests Gentle Routine whitening strips, with a lower concentration than their Professional Results strips to prevent irritation.

Can you whiten teeth with baking soda?

Many people swear by baking soda as an at-home remedy to whiten your teeth. In reality, it isn’t as effective as proper whitening agents, and if you use it too aggressively you can damage the enamel protecting your teeth, as well as cause irritation to your gums.

If you did want to try it, just mix a teaspoon of baking soda with a small amount of water to make a paste. Apply this to your teeth and then brush them as normal. You may see some whitening after a few days’ use but it won’t remove heavy stains.

Can you pay for teeth whitening on insurance?

Most dental insurance policies do not cover cosmetic treatments such as teeth whitening, so you’ll likely need to pay for any whitening products or services out of your own pocket.

It may be worth checking the terms of your insurance policy, particularly if you have a comprehensive (and more expensive) dental plan, as you may find that limited financial support is available, but this is extremely rare.

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