There is an unprecedented obsession over the whiteness of teeth these days. You’ve got whitening toothpastes, mouthwashes and gums, brightening strips, at-home tooth-whitening trays, and of course professional tooth bleaching treatments from the comfort of your dentist’s chair.
Thanks to widespread indulgence in teeth-staining beverages like coffee and tea, yummy tooth yellowing foods like curries, mustard and chili, and celebs with impossibly white teetth, we’re all fixated on the brightness of those pearly whites. What’s a gal to do when her teeth are looking a bit dull, or even (god forbid) yellow?
Natural Tooth Color
Let’s get something straight right now: contrary to the aspirations of celebrities and cosmetic dentists everywhere, teeth are not naturally white. Even the cleanest most pristine teeth fall somewhere between a shade of light grey and pale yellow… Not white. Aside from the natural shade of your teeth themselves, other factors like skin color and even makeup can make your teeth look whiter: due to the effect of contrast, people with darker skin and/or red lipstick have teeth which appear more brighter.
Teeth naturally darken with age and their appearance can be affected by the accumulation of surface stains acquired from the use of tobacco products (ick!) and the consumption of those tooth tarnishing foods we hate to love.
Tooth Whitening vs Dental Bleaching
Although there is a mind-boggling array of products on the market available to brighten your smile, there are just a few mechanisms and chemical agents used to make that smile sparkle. First off, it’s important to distinguish between a tooth whitening and tooth bleaching.
Tooth (Surface) Whitening
Tooth whitening procedures remove stains or discoloration from teeth, designed to restore tooth color to their natural color. These surface whitening products remove stains through mechanical means, by including fine abrasives like silica or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to manually scrape away stains. Most products within this category are either whitening toothpastes or chewing gums.
Dental bleaching procedures are designed to whiten teeth beyond their natural shade, closer to white. Bleaching products use dilute peroxide solutions to chemically whiten the color of the tooth itself. Not all tooth discolorations respond to bleaching, so it’s important to consult with your dentist to determine the cause of discoloration to decide to best plan of action to achieve a whiter smile.
Professional Dental Bleaching
Dentists may choose one of three main courses of action to getting you a whiter smile; they may:
- Apply a special bleach on stained teeth and using heat (or heat and ultraviolet light) to start the bleaching action; or
- Provide you with a a custom-made mouthguard to wear, filled with a special bleach for part of each day; or
- Advise brushing with a special bleach mixed in toothpaste.
Home-Use Tooth Bleaching Systems
Home-use dental bleaching systems are available either from a dentist or from various retail outlets, and clinical studies support the safety and effectiveness of home-use bleaching gels when used according to the directions.
The American Dental Association advises that tooth bleaching should only be done under a dentist’s care, and that the effects of long-term bleaching are unknown.
Natural Tooth Whitening Alternatives
Most natural tooth whitening options are very inexpensive, yet should be used sparingly, as overuse could lead to irreparable damage to tooth enamel:
- One method of natural tooth whitening is to use baking soda and very gently brush teeth to remove stains.
- An efficient form of natural dental bleaching is through the use of malic acid, a naturally occurring acid in found in fruits like green apples and strawberries, that contributes to tart notes in their flavor.