Health: DIY home bleaching

I'm not saying that being a smoker and a coffee guzzler hasn't contributed to the problem over the years, but my teeth have always been an unattractive off-white colour. I first asked my dentist about tooth whitening when I was about 22, only to be told that it was ill advised and costly (more than £1,000 per tooth).

A decade later, I was surprised to find my dentist being actively encouraging: "I wish more people would make use of this treatment; the results are stunning and there's no damage to the teeth." The effect, according to my dentist, would last up to 3 years. All for £350. I grinned, in my well-practised, not-showing-my-teeth way.

The final decision to go ahead with the treatment came at a wedding-dress fitting. White tulle and yellow teeth - not a good look. The choice was simple: whiten my teeth or find a yellow frock.

It all started with cold blue clay being stuffed unceremoniously into my mouth. This provided a cast for the all important gum shield cum bleach carrier, or "application tray", which I picked up two weeks later from my dentist. Creating this application tray accounts for most of the cost of the treatment. (Tip: keep the plaster model of your mouth. It's of no use to your dentist but may prove useful to you later in life.)

Back at home, I gingerly inserted the gum shield for the first time. It was pleasingly snug, almost comfortable. It wasn't until I added the bleach that the saga took a turn for the worse. It could have been a reaction to the chemicals, it could have been using too much bleaching paste, or maybe it was bad tooth-fairy karma, but the experience of whitening my teeth was foul from beginning to end.

The procedure itself is simple; squeeze a tiny dollop of white paste into the specially designed pouch that bathes each individual tooth in the perfect amount of peroxide. Leave to marinade for one hour in the morning and then another dose for one hour at night. During both one-hour sessions you must not eat or drink. Nor must you be alarmed if you feel a slight fizzing sensation. It's just the carbomide peroxide doing its thing. After just two weeks of this routine, my teeth, I was assured, would be white.

The reality, however, was grimmer. For the next fortnight my life was dominated by the affairs of my mouth. How could I avoid getting up a whole hour before work in the mornings? Could I wear my application tray on the tube in the morning? Would I look too bizarre? I would at least get a seat. In the event the procedure was too stressful, and involved too much wincing and groaning, to be carried out in public. Because what I didn't realise was that bleach reacts like silver foil to fillings.

Imagine applying foil to your teeth. Now imagine that you have a filling in every tooth, like me. Over the coming weeks the electrifying reaction of bleach on filling would test my resolve to the limit. But this only occurred only when the tray was in position; other side effects were more pervasive. My teeth became more heat sensitive, my mouth felt dry and metallic. And the tooth-crowning glory was that the anxiety of the whole thing made me grind my teeth at night until each and every socket ached.

The worst thing of all was that I couldn't complain. The condition was entirely self-inflicted and driven by a vain and undignified wish to be more attractive to men. You have to be comfortable becoming the kind of person who has cosmetic surgery. After all, tooth whitening is just a step away from having breast implants, collagen injections or full-on face reconstruction. As the treatment continued to wreak havoc in my mouth, feelings of self-hate grew.

There was one consolation; that it was my pride taking a knock rather than my teeth. This treatment, I was assured, was the safest available and did not compromise the structure of my teeth. It's one thing to obsess about your teeth for a few weeks, and another to damage or lose them.

After the two weeks were over, my teeth were undisputedly several shades whiter. Not fluorescent white, not even brilliant white. Now I think of it, not a single person has noticed my new smile. But I can, with a bit of relearning, show my gnashers when I smile, which feels great. It's only since I've had my teeth whitened that I realise how self-conscious about them I had become.

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