9 Things Dentists Wish You Knew About Teeth Whitening

Everyone wants a mega-watt smile, but teeth whitening isn't for everyone. Here's what you need to know before you get gleaming.

You'll need a checkup first


Before you can get that Hollywood smile, it's critical to have a dental exam to ensure that your mouth is healthy. "Dental problems such as cavities and gum disease need to be addressed before bleaching," says Eric Klein, DDS, a dentist in Norwalk, Connecticut. Here's why it's so important: "Dentists often see people with a mouth full of cavities who want a whiter mouth before they have a healthy mouth," says William Graves, DDS, a dentist based in Southwest Nebraska. "But if you don't address these issues you will have pain and sensitivity when you try to bleach." Don't miss these 30 everyday mistakes you could be making that are damaging your teeth.

Slow and steady beats fast and furious


We're all immediate gratification junkies, but bleaching your teeth several shades in one day with an in-office laser treatment may not be the most comfortable option. "Bleaching can cause sensitivity, and even sometimes pain in the teeth or mouth," Dr. Graves says. Most dentists use a special fluoride desensitizing paste before performing whitening procedures to avoid increased sensitivity and discomfort, but some sensitivity following bleaching is considered normal. "That's why sometimes slow and steady is better, however," Dr. Graves adds, so you might want to skip the in-office treatment and go straight to the custom take-home trays. Try these toothache home remedies to ease the pain.

You can try this at home


While in-office, light-activated procedures can jumpstart the whitening process, professional take-home kits sold in dental offices work very well to keep your pearly whites, well, pearly, compared to teeth-whitening products found in drug stores. According to Dr. Klein, custom whitening molds can be extremely effective in teeth whitening at home, especially when combined with a light-activated procedure. Here are some other ways you can whiten your teeth naturally at home.

It's not one and done


In fact, you'll probably need to use those custom trays at home if you don't want to see your sparkle lose its luster. Teeth whitening requires commitment and maintenance. "You can't bleach it and forget it," Dr. Graves says. In fact, you can expect that shiny white color to fade within about six months unless you do monthly touch-ups at home with a professional-strength product. Just don't use tooth-whitening products too often, though. Research shows that such products "wear away microscopic amounts of tooth enamel, which could increase tooth sensitivity, and even cause tooth decay."

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You might have to watch what passes your lips


Certain foods and beverages such as tea, coffee, wine, and even blended green juices can cause tooth discoloration (here's how to save your teeth from coffee stains). Cutting them out of your diet—or limiting them—will help your teeth stay white post-procedure. At the same time, certain foods such cauliflower, strawberries, seeds, and nuts may help whiten teeth and may speed up the whitening process. Check out more foods that naturally whiten teeth.

Go OTC if you don't need TLC


Yes, you can absolutely walk into a drugstore and grab a teeth-whitening product off the shelf—if you're looking to whiten by just a shade or two. "For non-sensitive teeth in need of only slight whitening, over-the-counter products may be satisfactory," explains Dr. Klein. "Whitening strips or mold lights using a mild peroxide solution may work well." Try APA White Duo with no-slip white film strips that mold to teeth to lock in whitening agents. Peppermint oil treats sensitivity and potassium nitrate shields sensory nerves under the gum line, so you won't be clutching your jaw in pain, as with some pro treatments. This kit earns its high price tag with impressive whitening results in under a week. For a more budget-friendly option, try Crest 3D Luxe White Strips Professional Effects, which uses enamel-safe whiteners to erase stains and yellowing in three days, with full results in 20 days. You can also try brushing your teeth with the Go Smile On the Go Sonic Blue Teeth Whitening System, an electric toothbrush that has blue light technology to speed whitening. Apply the whitening gel along with your regular toothpaste and brush for two minutes, twice daily, for pearlier whites in two days. Be sure you're not making these mistakes when brushing your teeth.

Toothpastes don't really do the trick


Unfortunately, toothpastes that advertise whitening powers don't stick around long enough to deliver on their promise. "Some have whitening solution in them, but usually they're not on the teeth long enough to be effective," Dr. Klein says. And they won't intrinsically change the internal color of your teeth effectively. Instead, they use abrasive ingredients to remove surface stains from things like cigarette smoke and coffee. Whitening formulas can also make teeth sensitive over time.

Fake teeth may not whiten


Older restorations such as bonds or crowns will not whiten during the bleaching process, so you could end up with mismatched coloring if you don't replace the older restorations. If you do choose to replace older restorations, expect to wait seven to 10 days after bleaching to pick the shade of a new crown or veneer, according to Dr. Graves.

Here are some things your dentist wishes you would do differently.

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Not all stains come out easily


If your teeth were overexposed to fluoride during your first eight years of life, you may have a cosmetic condition called "fluorosis"—white spots or fine, chalk-like lines on the surface of your teeth. These stains can be difficult to treat, and may require multiple bleaching treatments to improve. Though fluorosis does cause a slight discoloration of the teeth, the condition is extremely common, affecting 23 percent of people between ages six and 49.

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