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Hilliard Blank, DDS & Associates > Chicago Dental Blog > Teeth Whitening FAQ


Teeth Whitening FAQ : January 17, 2014

Teeth Whitening – Cold, Hard Facts

By: Dr. Hilliard Blank

There are no shortcuts to a healthy mouth, but a lot of products out there are competing to offer the fastest way to a more attractive smile. Teeth whitening treatments have become increasingly popular in the last twenty years for a number of reasons. For some, they provide a valuable touch-up before a weekend of photos at a wedding, birthday party, or high school reunion. For others, they are a necessary part of daily hygiene. No matter your motivation for having a whiter smile, it’s important to be aware of the best treatments and biggest risks behind them. Preventing discoloration can be accomplished through regular brushing and visits to your dentist, but if you’re interested in a brighter smile, educate yourself and make sure you know what you’re putting into your mouth.

How Does Teeth Whitening Work?

Teeth whiteners work in a few different ways. For the most part, their chemical ingredients or polishing agents work on the surface of tooth enamel and remove any accumulated discoloration. The most frequently-used types of bleach are hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is the stronger of the two, usually causing more sensitivity. Carbamide peroxide has a more neutral pH, making it less irritating to the mouth. Some specialized treatments utilize heat, lasers, or a special frequency of light in combination with traditional chemicals to provide a more powerful whitening process.  Depending on the whitening agent and delivery, the process can take between twenty minutes and several hours.

What Kinds of Treatments are Available?

Take-home Custom Trays

Take-home custom trays are available from our office. This treatment involves taking a diagnostic model of your mouth, creating a tray with soft, durable plastic, and custom-fitting it over the teeth to stop just below the gum line. The trays are filled with a peroxide-based gel before each use and worn for up to several hours at a time. Some types of treatments can be used overnight. This is our most popular form of teeth whitening because it is the most effective and safest.

In-Office Bleach:

The in-office bleach treatment that is provided by dentists is the fastest and most immediately-apparent form of teeth whitening treatment available, but it is also the most expensive. The concentration of bleach used is the highest available on the market. The whitening product is applied directly onto the teeth using a small brush and left in place for 15 to 30 minutes. We isolate the teeth from the gums using plastic shields to prevent any misplaced peroxide from damaging your soft tissue. Depending on the dental office, there may be an additional part of the treatment involving a quick exposure to ultra-violet light or specialized lasers. At our office, we don’t use any of these additional steps for whitening because they increase the amount of sensitivity experienced.

Over-the-Counter:

This is one of the most common types of teeth whitening treatments. Over-the-counter bleach comes in many forms, but the most popular delivery systems are strips, gels, and one-size-fits all mouth trays. The user applies the treatment directly to their own teeth daily, and gradually teeth become whiter. Today, there are even more types of over-the-counter products like toothpaste, rinses, or gum that can provide similar benefits to these bleach treatments. These easily-obtained treatments are not as effective as conventional treatments, but are the most affordable. Results are not always satisfactory.  

Who Should Use Teeth Whitening?

The ideal patients for cosmetic teeth whitening are adults with healthy gums and teeth experiencing slight discoloration. As a rule of thumb, only patients that are 16 years or older should consider teeth whitening. The main risks associated with applying whiteners to teeth that are still developing are excessive irritation to the teeth’s nerves. Additionally, women that are pregnant or lactating should not use whitening treatments in order to avoid passing any potentially dangerous chemicals into the prenatal environment. Pregnant women aren’t even supposed to bleach their hair, so keeping bleach out of your mouth is just as important. If you have sensitive gums or any exposed roots, you should be careful using teeth whitening treatments to avoid causing additional sensitivity to the nerves in your teeth. Bleaching techniques are most effective on teeth with yellow stains. Teeth with brown, gray, or purplish discoloration will not have as noticeable results from whitening. Composite or porcelain materials used for veneers, crowns, and other dental restorations will not change colors.

What are the Risks of Teeth Whitening?

Sensitivity and irritation are the two primary side-effects of bleaching your teeth. The harsh chemical compounds in most treatments can make your teeth much more sensitive, but this symptom is mostly experienced immediately after the initial treatment. Most sensitivity will subside within one to two days after a treatment. A more serious concern is the issue of soft tissue irritation, including gums and lips. These types of soft tissue are much more sensitive to bleach and can be corroded or broken down if exposed to whitening agents for extended periods. This is more likely to occur with in-office bleaching techniques, which utilize the strongest concentration of bleach available. In the most extreme cases, it can cause permanent damage or recession of your gum line. If your gums or teeth are in any way compromised before bleaching, we can discuss your options and determine the degree of risk for your bleach usage.

Check back with us for the follow-up post on our Chicago Dental Blog for our favorite whitening products, tips to avoid the risks of whitening treatments, and more of our professional advice on the best way to get a bright, healthy smile!