Medically Reviewed by Greg Grillo, D.D.S.
When it comes to appearance, few things are as striking as the perfect smile. It’s no wonder people spend so much money on smile maintenance, restoration, and improvement.
There are any number of procedures that can be used to improve a smile, ranging from orthodontics and gum tissue reshaping, to porcelain restorations and implants. Of these many procedures, teeth whitening is arguably the most popular. This could in part be attributed to the relative low cost and minimal invasiveness of treatment, or the fact that tooth discoloration is such a common issue. Regardless, teeth whitening is in high demand.
Causes of Tooth Discoloration
Tooth color varies significantly from person to person. We’re all equipped with a starting, default tooth color that is not always pearly white. Natural unstained tooth color could be a yellowish brown or even a variation of grey-green. Fortunately, bleaching can often help alter this starting color to something more aesthetically pleasing.
As we age, tooth enamel wears down and the underlying dentin begins to show through. Add to this the accumulation of staining over the years and it’s no wonder why whitening becomes more relevant (and more difficult) with age.
There are a variety of dietary and lifestyle habits that also cause tooth discoloration. Smokers experience heavy staining and drug use can have the effect of changing tooth color. Additionally, bruxing (or grinding) of the teeth can darken the biting edges of the teeth, essentially giving them a darker, discolored appearance. In all of these cases, color molecules bind to the mineral of the teeth and cause them to darken.
Trauma to the teeth may also result in discoloration as a result of cracks that develop in the teeth. These cracks can collect debris, which in turn yields staining. If teeth have changed color due to trauma, be sure to have a dentist evaluate them for more serious damage.
Making the White Decision
Whitening is the ideal solution for tooth discoloration. Extrinsic staining (staining that affects the surface of the tooth) can be corrected with relative ease through whitening treatments.
What causes extrinsic staining? Everything from routine wear, and smoking to the foods and drinks we ingest (chocolate, red wine and coffee are three common culprits).
Proper oral health management, including brushing and flossing, and routine dental checkups may be enough to prevent extrinsic staining, but stubborn stains will require bleaching to remove them. If not treated promptly, surface stains may seep into the dentin of the tooth, resulting in more severe, intrinsic staining. Unfortunately, intrinsic staining is not as receptive to bleaching, meaning that more expensive and invasive measures may be required to remove discoloration.
Toothpastes, Strips & Trays: The World of Over-the-Counter Whitening
Teeth whitening ingredients have found their way into a variety of over-the-counter products in recent years. Whitening strips and trays are products sold specifically for the purpose of whitening, but there are many other products that claim to offer whitening as a bonus. For example, there are a number of chewing gums and toothpastes that are branded as whiteners. Although these products can offer minimal whitening results, this branding should be taken with a grain of salt.
Whitening strips are thin, flexible membranes that are applied to the teeth and worn for a specified period of time. The whitening gel in strips contains a low-percentage bleaching agent such as hydrogen peroxide.
Brush-on whiteners are available in a variety of dispensers, such as brush-tipped pens. Brush-on whiteners are often marketed as “on-the-go” whitening solutions, though their effects are minimal and superficial at best.
Whitening toothpastes, floss and gum contain very little by way of a bleaching agent. Their effects are minimal at best, and likely no more noticeable than normal brushing and flossing.
Over-the-counter whitening options are unlikely to provide significant whitening effects, though their low cost makes them an attractive prospect for people seeking no-hassle whitening solutions.
Professional Teeth Whitening Solutions: Britesmile, Zoom, Opalescence and More
People seeking more drastic whitening results should consider professional teeth whitening with a dentist. Although there are a number of dental spas and certified providers of whitening products, the best option for dental treatment is with a trained dental professional. Only a dentist can determine the real cause behind the color of your teeth. For example, a single dark tooth could be from a dead nerve and chronic infection and should be treated.
In-office teeth whitening can provide whitening results in the shortest time. The benefit of in-office whitening is that an experienced dentist performs it in a professional setting. As such, high concentration bleaching agents can be used to generate impressive results. The gel is applied to the teeth in multiple 15 to 20 minute intervals, and, in some instances “activated” by high intensity UV light. The effects of in-office whitening can last for several months, though this depends on avoiding the types of foods and lifestyle habits that contribute to staining. Common in office whitening treatments include Zoom Whitening, Britesmile, and Opalescence Boost.
In addition to whitening performed in office by a dentist, there is another “professional” option to consider. Dentist-prescribed take home whitening kits are quite popular given that they can provide higher concentration bleaching agents than over-the-counter options at a fraction of the cost of Zoom, Britesmile, and other in-office dentist administered treatments. The whitening gel is applied to the teeth in a lower concentration over a period of an hour or more in custom-made trays that resemble the appearance of a mouth guard. Although the results from take home trays may not be as immediately noticeable as in-office treatments, many dentists claim the effects of take-home trays exceed the in-office option. In addition, once you have custom trays, you can use them in the future simply by purchasing a refill get kit from your dentist.
What Does Teeth Whitening Cost?
Teeth whitening is a purely cosmetic procedure and therefore not covered by any dental insurance policy. Prices range based on the type of product you use, your frequency of use, and the location in which you use it. For example, in-office whitening in Beverly Hills will likely cost you more than the same treatment performed in Idaho Falls.
Over-the counter whitening costs: $10 to $100
Prescribed take home whitening tray costs: $100 to $400
In-office teeth whitening costs: $500 to $700 per session
Speak with your dentist about your aesthetic concerns to determine the best course of whitening treatment for you.