Everything you need to know about teeth whitening

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One of the quickest, easiest and most popular ways to achieve a more luminous smile is teeth whitening. If you’re ready to brighten that mega-watt smile of yours but are confused by the myriad of different options available, don’t worry! We sat down with Dr Lisa Currie, the Clinical Director/Consultant Orthodontist from The Orthodontic Clinic in Aberdeen, to chat through the pros and cons of each to help you decide which option is best for you.

Is at-home or professional teeth whitening best?

To begin, both over-the-counter whitening kits and professional treatments offer certain benefits. “To have the best outcome possible, it's important to understand what can reasonably be expected,” explains Dr Lisa. “Additionally, it's vital to start with a clean slate - have a professional cleaning with your hygienist beforehand to give the best possible results.”

You should also remember that any artificial teeth (such as fillings, veneers, crowns, bridges and implants) will not change colour. Neither will plaque, however, so if this is present, the result will be blotchy and imperfect.

As with anything, preparation is key! Making sure your teeth are in tip-top condition will ensure you get the best possible results, whether you opt for an at-home or professional teeth whitening treatment.

Over the counter DIY teeth whitening kits

Many people choose a DIY option as their first foray into teeth whitening. Being able to whiten your teeth at home is convenient, and you can do it in your own time, on your own terms. “The downside of this, however, is that they’re only effective to a certain point. It’s hard to get the exact same results you’d get in a professional setting without actually sitting down with a dentist to get the work done,” warns Dr Lisa.

We asked Dr Lisa to explain the three main types of over the counter DIY teeth whitening options: teeth whitening trays, teeth whitening strips, and whitening toothpastes and rinses.

Teeth whitening trays

“These trays are ‘one size fits all’ and contain a unique solution or other form of liquid that, when regularly applied, will whiten your teeth over time. The process itself varies depending on which brand you use, but generally speaking, people have the most success with durations of between one to three hours per night, for one to three times per week,” explains Dr Lisa. “The more frequently you use the trays, the whiter your teeth will get as a result.”

“This is by far the most effective at-home teeth whitening option available as they can lighten your teeth up to five shades lighter. The downside here is the cost. These kits can range from £30 to £100 or more, depending on how many you need, how often you plan on using them, and other factors that will be unique to your situation,” she adds.

There is no guidance or advice from a dental professional and many patients who use these kits use them incorrectly. Because the trays are not custom made for your mouth, they can be loose and uncomfortable and not as effective at holding the whitening liquid close to your teeth. The bleaching solution this can leak and contact the gum line, and cause gum recession, which is the leading cause of dental sensitivity.

So are they worth using? “These types of whitening kits are great before a big event or to maintain previous whitening,” suggests Dr Lisa. “The results however are not as dramatic as professional treatments and don't last as long.”

Teeth whitening strips

Teeth whitening strips are clear strips coated with a whitening solution that you apply to your teeth once or twice a day for between a half hour and two full hours (depending on the brand you’ve selected).

“The major advantage that this has over teeth whitening trays is cost — you can get a full set of strips for as little as £20,” explains Dr Lisa. “They’re not nearly as effective, however, and will probably only whiten your teeth by between two and four shades. Results will also be less consistent around the crevices of your teeth and in other areas where establishing long-term contact with the strip is difficult.”

Whitening toothpastes and rinses

“This is a very popular option for many people due to their convenience,” notes Dr Lisa. “Instead of using a regular toothpaste or mouthwash, you simply switch to one made to whiten your teeth.”

They cost far less than any other at-home option. Quality whitening toothpaste can be purchased for as little as £5 but they’re also far less effective. “Your teeth will be about one to two shades lighter, but this may be hard to notice at a casual glance. Because of this, whitening toothpastes and rinses are really best used as a supplement to another one of these techniques — not necessarily as an effective single or long lasting solution.”

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Professional whitening treatments

It’s clear to see that at-home treatments have their benefits, but they’re definitely not perfect. Whilst they may be purse-friendly, you won’t always get the gleaming results you want by using over the counter teeth whitening. So, what about professional teeth whitening instead? Dr Lisa talks us through the options…

In-practice treatments

“The dentist will take steps to protect your gums before applying a whitening gel to the surface of your teeth. A halogen lamp is used to accelerate the whitening agent, which offers better and faster results, usually in around one hour. In a single visit, your teeth could be up to eight shades lighter,” says Dr Lisa.

This could be a great option if you’re looking for a speedy solution. You could even pop in on your lunch break and return to your desk with a brand new smile!

As with all types of teeth whitening, there are side effects to be aware of. “These can include tooth sensitivity, soft tissue irritation (although this is limited by applying the correct amount of gel), and a slight patchiness of the tooth surface (this may occur due to different parts of the teeth being more porous than others and thus taking up the gel more easily, leading to a cloudy appearance. This is transient and will settle and the colour will equalise and even out over a couple of days). One of the biggest risks of teeth whitening is the risk of relapse and the colour fading over time.”

Dentist supervised at-home whitening treatments

This type of whitening involves the dentist taking impressions of your teeth to make customised bleaching trays to fit your mouth. You fill the trays with whitening gel to guarantee the bleaching agent is applied as precisely as possible, and these are worn in the evenings or overnight for a period of two to three weeks, as instructed by your dentist. This is more economical and renders the same results as in-practice treatments, though less rapidly.

“The price of these treatments ranges from £250-£400. The advantages of these treatments are dazzling, longer-lasting results and customization for the patient. Additionally, the substance ACP, amorphous calcium and phosphate, is now integrated into the professional grade gels and work as a desensitizer so as to provide safer, healthier whitening,” explains Dr Lisa. “The problems that patients historically used to report such as extreme sensitivity and ‘burning’ of the gums occurs significantly less with these professional gels, but must be used under supervision. Professional whitening gels can only be dispensed only by dentists.”

Ultimately, the best way to achieve a natural-looking white smile with predictable and long-lasting results is with professional whitening treatments. Whether this is an in-office or a dentist-supervised at-home treatment is usually down to patient preference but it is best to seek your dentist’s advice on this. In the end, it’s important to remember that there is not necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teeth whitening. Some people enjoy the convenience and cost-effectiveness of at-home treatment, while others need immediate results and have the funds to pay for it in a professional environment. Deciding on the best option for your situation is something that only you can do by weighing the pros and cons carefully.

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How can you care for your teeth and keep your smile white after the teeth whitening process?

In order to keep teeth white after a professional whitening treatment, Dr Lisa recommends you should keep these four things in mind…

1. Practice good oral hygiene

“Make a point of brushing your teeth immediately after you eat - this is especially true if you are consuming foods and beverages that are known to stain teeth. Brush at least twice a day to help remove any surface stains and decrease any yellowing effects. Additionally, you can also replace your current toothpaste with one made specifically for whitening. It's also important to floss at least once a day to remove any plaque that has built up.”

2. Pay attention to what you eat and drink

“Avoiding food and drink that may stain your teeth is crucial. Red wine, tea, coffee, certain sports and soft drinks, tomato-based foods, curries, and berries are just some of the substances that can stain your teeth. The colour found in these items originates from chromogens, which are deeply pigmented molecules. Unfortunately, these molecules take a liking to the enamel on your teeth, resulting in stains. You can still enjoy a cup of tea from time to time - just make sure you're practicing moderation.”

3. Avoid smoking 

“If you smoke, the nicotine and tar in tobacco easily absorbs into the ‘pores’ of the teeth, causing a yellow or brown discolouration. Although nicotine, by itself, is colourless, when combined with oxygen it turns yellow. This means that even electronic cigarettes with nicotine infused ‘ejuice’ can stain your teeth. Often, smokers will have certain teeth that become darker than others due to their method of inhalation.”

4. Top up your treatments

“To keep teeth white, it's not enough to get your teeth whitened once and expect them to stay that way. After you have had your teeth whitened, a regular at-home tooth whitening treatment will keep them white and should be used as directed by your dentist. The frequency of your ‘top-ups’ will be dependent on the type of whitening you have had but lifestyle factors, such as smoking and excessively drinking stain-causing liquids, can mean you may require more frequent touch-ups.”

To find out more about The Orthodontic Clinic and discover which whitening treatment is best for you, please visit theorthodonticclinic.co.uk or visit the practice at 21 Golden Square, Aberdeen, AB10 1RE