Your smile is one of the first things a person notices about you. Whether meeting a potential partner, boss, or random stranger on the street, it can speak volumes without saying a single word. Are you young, healthy and vibrant? Or aging, unwell and worn out? The color of your teeth alone can dictate how people perceive you— the whiter the teeth, the better the first impression.
Teeth whitening is the most commonly performed cosmetic dental procedure. Its quickness, effectiveness, and affordability make it accessible to the masses and an almost vital part of modern-day appearance upkeep. But it’s not a new phenomenon.
People have been bleaching their teeth for millennia, using everything from pumice stone to wine vinegar to urine (yes, it’s true) to grind away surface stains on teeth. Even 4,000 years ago, having white teeth was a sign of wealth and beauty. These days it’s no different, but now people have access to much more potent and convenient (and sanitary) whitening treatments.
Discoloration of the teeth is due to numerous factors that come together to dull a bright smile, including:
- Certain foods or drinks (1) (such as coffee, many vegetables, soda, and acidic foods)
- Drug and/or tobacco use
- Certain mouth rinses
- Inadequate oral health
- Genetic factors.
Teeth whitening works in one of two ways: either stains are physically removed from the teeth, or chemical reactions cause lightening of the teeth. (2) Both result in the appearance of whiter teeth and a brighter smile. The active ingredient in most teeth bleaching products is either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.
The chief components that affect the results of whitening via peroxide chemicals are concentration and time; the higher the concentration of the chemical, the faster the results. (3) However, studies have shown that people can get the same results with lower concentrations, just over a longer period of time. (3) This finding has made home whitening products a popular method of treatment.
Many variations of teeth whitening are available, at the dentist’s office and at home. The correct option depends on the individual’s level of discoloration, desired whiteness, and budget.
Dental (in office) Treatments
- Whitening Gels– $650-1,500 (4)
- A dental clinician applies a high concentration hydrogen peroxide gel to the teeth for a short amount of time, usually between 15 and 45 minutes. The gel may be removed and reapplied throughout the procedure to maximize results.
- Pros: immediate results, fast procedure.
- Cons: Costly, more intense tooth sensitivity following procedure compared to home treatments.
- Take-home trays– $100-$400 (4)
- Although technically people use these at home, the take-home tray method is administered by a dentist. First, molds will be taken of the teeth to create the trays. Next, the patient takes the molds home and applies a moderate concentration hydrogen peroxide gel into the front part of the tray. The molds are typically worn overnight for a series of weeks or months.
- Pros: Convenient, more effective than over-the-counter home treatments. Many are also offered over the counter and cost under $100.
- Cons: More expensive than over the counter treatments, increased tooth sensitivity compared to whitening strips, patient must be consistent with treatments to achieve desired results.
- UV light treatments– $650-1,500 (4)
- Dentists use UV light applied to the teeth during the whitening gel procedure to increase speed and efficacy of treatment. UV light works at a different frequency than LED blue light and may be more effective in whitening.
- Pros: Speeds up the whitening process, with more visible results than in-office whitening gels alone.
- Cons: Most expensive; light treatment is not effective without the active ingredient in the whitening gel, so both procedures must be purchased.
- Whitening strips– $10-$60 (4)
- Clear, plastic strips are applied to both the top and bottom teeth. The strips contain a low concentration of hydrogen peroxide gel and sit on the teeth for between 30 minutes and 2 hours. The strips are disposable and must be used consistently for 2-3 weeks for maximum results.
- Pros: Less expensive than in-office whitening, widely available, effective if used properly, creates less tooth sensitivity than take-home trays.
- Cons: Patient must be consistent with treatments to achieve desired results; lower concentration of chemical means it takes longer to get the same whitening effects as in-office treatment.
- Whitening toothpaste– $4-$7 (4)
- Some contain low concentrations of hydrogen peroxides, but many do not. Instead, they use abrasives like hydrated silica, sodium bicarbonate, and calcium carbonate to remove surface stains.
- Pros: less expensive than whitening strips, people who cannot do bleaching treatments for health reasons may be able to use whitening toothpastes, convenient (most people already brush their teeth twice daily).
- Cons: not as effective as treatments containing hydrogen peroxide, short treatment time — the time it takes to brush your teeth— yields less effective results.
- Whitening rinses $4-$7 (4)
- These rinses come in the form of the typical over the counter mouthwash and claim to whiten teeth. Many contain low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide.
- Pros: Inexpensive, easily accessible, and convenient.
- Cons: Not likely to give results based on treatment time and low concentrations of whitening agents.
- LED Blue Light– $25-$200
- Touted by many celebrities as their go-to teeth whiteners, these hand-held LED blue lights are said to whiten teeth in a similar way that UV light is used in the dentist’s office. However, studies are conflicting on the efficacy of this method. Some have found that UV light is necessary to achieve the quickened results, and home LED lights are typically not in the UV frequencies. Most agree that the light alone will not whiten teeth. It must be paired with a chemical agent to cause any lightening to occur.
- Pros: Convenient, may make home whitening faster.
- Cons: May or may not be as quick and potent as claimed by marketing.
- Whitening pens– $10-$60 (4)
- This on-the-go whitening method is meant to be carried along in a purse or pocket for easy, convenient use after consumption of a tooth-staining food or drink. The concentration of hydrogen peroxide is low, since the person may ingest a small amount.
- Pros: Easy, convenient, affordable, may maintain already white teeth.
- Cons: Does not contribute to teeth whitening, although it may prevent staining.
If you have mild to moderate stains, discoloration, or dental fluorosis (white spotting on teeth), have no active infections, and are not pregnant, tooth whitening may work for you. You should avoid these treatments if you have dental crowns or large fillings in the areas to be treated, have tooth decay, or have gums exposing yellow roots. Talk to your dentist today about which treatment may be right for you.
Teeth whitening is a purely cosmetic treatment and therefore not covered by any dental insurance policy.
The cost of teeth whitening varies widely based on the type of product used, frequency of use, and the whether or not it’s administered at home or by a professional.
The following is the average cost of teeth whitening treatments:
- Over-the counter whitening costs: $10 to $100
- Prescribed take home whitening tray costs: $100 to $400
- In-office teeth whitening costs: $650 to $1,500
- Gemmi, C. 10 foods that stain your teeth. Orthodontics limited, PC. https://www.orthodonticslimited.com/teeth/10-foods-that-stain-your-teeth/. Published April 19, 2016. Accessed October 15, 2020.
- Carey CM. Tooth whitening: what we now know. J Evid Based Dent Pract. 2014;14 Suppl:70-76. doi:10.1016/j.jebdp.2014.02.006.
- Joiner A. The bleaching of teeth: a review of the literature. J Dent. 2006;34(7):412-419. doi:10.1016/j.jdent.2006.02.002.
- Freedman, A. How much does teeth whitening cost? Bankrate. https://www.bankrate.com/personal-finance/smart-money/how-much-does-teeth-whitening-cost/. Published July 17, 2017. Accessed October 14, 2020.