Walk down the toothpaste aisle at your typical drugstore and you’ll see a range of products that promise to whiten your teeth. Whitening toothpaste, whitening strips, a whitening gel that you can paint on your teeth with a cotton swab or use in a mouth tray, a two-step “daily cleaning and whitening system,” and more.
“I see a lot more attention on pretty smiles,” says Clifton Carey, a chemist at the University of Colorado’s School of Dental Medicine. Tooth whitening, in particular, is “a big thing these days. A lot of sellers and a lot of customers.”
The products at the drugstore all have essentially the same whitening ingredient — the bleaching agent peroxide. If you go to your dentist for a professional tooth whitening, they’ll use a more concentrated peroxide product.
With the in-office procedure, “you get a lot of whitening very quickly, but it requires expertise,” says Matthew Messina, a practicing dentist at the Ohio State University College of Dentistry and a spokesman for the American Dental Association. With such a high-powered bleaching agent, he says, “the dentist has to protect the gums.”
The over-the-counter products are weaker. That means less active whitening but also less risk to the gums, should the whitening agent come in contact. “All of the products are safe if used as directed,” Messina says. Still, they can increase sensitivity of teeth and they can irritate gum tissue. “Anything that doesn’t feel right, you should see your dentist.”
Tooth whitening is best done in a “healthy mouth condition,” Messina says. “Have a thorough exam, make sure your teeth are clean and that plaque and tartar have been removed.” Also, be aware that tooth whitening doesn’t work on crowns or most fillings.