The Pros and Cons of Different Tooth Whitening Procedures, According to a Dentist

What you need to know before buying those whitening strips.

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If your pearly whites have seen, er, whiter days, you may be thinking about brightening up those babies. Your first instinct may be to avoid teeth-staining foods and buy some of those white strips you’ve seen on the commercials. Done and done … right?

Not so fast. What many people don’t know is that you shouldn’t just dive in head first to any ol' whitening procedure blindly. For one thing, your teeth have to be “in shape” so the whitening treatments are actually effective and don’t hurt your teeth. Secondly, there are many smile-brightening options available, so you want to be sure you’re picking the one that works best for you (and your wallet).

Here’s the right way to get that bright white smile you’ve always wanted.

What to Do Before You Whiten Your Teeth

Just like it’s wise to check with your doctor before starting a brand-new exercise routine, you should check with your dentist before you whiten your teeth.

“If someone is not happy with the brightness of their teeth, I suggest that they first go to the dentist and check that their enamel is intact,” says Jennifer Jablow, DDS, dentist in New York City. “If you have very thin, translucent, worn down enamel, you’re not going to get the results for whitening anyway, so you might as well not use it.”

It’s also important for your dentist to make sure your gums are healthy, and to check for open cavities. If whitening peroxide gets into cavity openings, it may cause problems.

How to Pick the Right Whitening Procedure

“I would suggest trying an at-home procedure first and seeing how you react to that, before you go to the dentist and spend a lot of money,” says Dr. Jablow.

Over-the-counter (OTC) whitening treatments are often cheaper than dentist office procedures, but have a lower concentration of bleach. If you’re thinking about using an OTC whitening option, make sure you get one with the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance, which ensures that it’s safe and effective for teeth whitening.

  • Whitening strips: Whitening strips usually work well and are very cost-effective. Even so, there are a few downsides: “They usually only reach the front six teeth, they sit on the gum tissue so you get irritation of the gum tissue, and a lot of people complain about the sensitivity,” says Dr. Jablow.
  • One-size-fits-all trays: Whitening trays can whiten your teeth in a short amount of time, but a downfall of the OTC kind is that they’re not custom-fitted to your teeth. “When you put the tray in, the gel [can] goop up all over the place. You might end up ingesting it and swallowing it and getting an irritated throat,” says Dr. Jablow.
  • Paint-on gels: Unless you’re an expert at keeping your lips off your teeth, then paint-on gel whiteners aren’t doing your teeth any favors. “The problem with most of the paint-on gel that you see is that as soon as your lips collapse down, the gel rinses away immediately,” says Dr. Jablow.

In-office whitening procedures that you get at the dentist are notably pricier, but they’re supervised by your dentist, are very effective, and usually require only one office visit (aside from maintenance).

  • Zoom whitening: Zoom whitening is fast, effective and one of the most popular in-office whitening options, says Dr. Jablow. “It’s a high concentration of peroxide that’s placed on the teeth, and that gel also has what’s called a photocatalyst. The photocatalyst is what makes the light activate the peroxide and break it into tiny little oxygen molecules that break up stains,” she says.
  • Custom-fitted whitening trays: “The dentist takes a mold of your mouth so those trays fit you specifically,” says Dr. Jablow. “You fill those trays in and you wear them for about a half an hour to an hour a day, and they whiten in about a week or two weeks.”

What You Need to Know About Whitening Treatments

Whether you chose an OTC whitening option or opt for an in-office procedure, it’s important to understand that all forms of teeth whitening require maintenance.

“Depending on your eating and drinking habits, and how porous your teeth are, you’re going to have to do something to maintain that level of whiteness,” says Dr. Jablow. “Three months down the road you might have to do a touch-up with some trays or some strips or some liquid gel boosters that you’ll add to your toothpaste.”

Along with maintaining that glittering grin, it’s even more important to keep your teeth healthy. That’s why it’s critical to brush your teeth twice a day (especially at night!) and floss every single day as well.