When it comes to our teeth, lots of us feel insecure about our not-so-pearly whites. If you're looking for a brighter smile, you might be investigating teeth whitening options. But is it safe?
The rise of celebrities and social media stars with 'perfect' smiles combined with the increasing accessibility of whitening products have led to a boom in teeth whitening. Where dazzlingly white teeth were once limited to those rich enough to afford the procedure, you can now find an array of teeth whitening toothpastes, strips and kits in most supermarkets and pharmacies.
Why are my teeth yellow?
If the colour of your teeth is causing you distress, don't worry - it isn't an indicator of how healthy your teeth are.
"Having discoloured or yellow teeth doesn't mean you have an unhealthy smile," says Dr Brijesh Patel, dentist at Bupa Dental Care. "Teeth can change colour if we're unwell, as we age and the enamel wears away or through staining from the food and drink we consume. Similarly, having pearly white teeth doesn't mean you don't have issues such as cavities (holes in your teeth) or gum disease."
As enamel, the outer surface of our teeth, wears away, dentine, the tissue which makes up most of our teeth, can start to show through. But even our genetics can impact the colour of our teeth.
"Coffee, tea, wine and smoking are the main causes of stains," explains Patel. "Keep them to a minimum to stop your teeth becoming stained and remember to visit your dentist or hygienist for regular, professional cleans to help reduce staining."
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Professional teeth whitening
The safest and most effective option for whiter teeth is professional teeth whitening, carried out by a qualified dental professional. This is the most expensive option, but will offer the greatest, most long-lasting results. "The cost of teeth whitening treatments varies depending on many factors, including the type of treatment, the clinician, their experience and the location," says Patel.
Professional teeth whitening must be carried out by someone who is just that - a professional. You risk your health by having your teeth whitened by anyone else.
"Teeth whitening is a form of dentistry and should only be carried out by qualified and registered dental professionals - something a lot of people are unaware of. The whitening gels used by dental professionals are regulated, prescription-only materials," he explains. "Teeth whitening carried out by staff without dental qualifications not only puts your oral health at risk but is illegal."
Whilst it might seem cheaper to book teeth whitening at your local beauty salon, the dentist bills to fix the damage will undoubtedly be more expensive than getting them done professionally in the first place. It's against the law for non-registered professionals to offer teeth whitening because of the risk involved.
"Materials used by some non-dental professionals illegally for teeth whitening can cause many complications, including sensitivity, swelling of the lips and tongue and burns to the mouth and gums, leaving people in a lot of pain and in some instances causing damage to the surface of the teeth," says Patel.
You can check whether the person carrying out your teeth whitening is registered, using the General Dental Council register.
Exploring your options
Even in professional hands there is a variety of options. Dentists themselves may carry out your teeth whitening or they may prescribe you a professional whitening kit to take home.
"Home whitening prescribed by a dental professional is as effective as in-chair whitening carried out in the dental practice," says Patel. "It depends on the patient's preference; some patients like the instant result from in-chair whitening, whilst others prefer to whiten at home as they feel more in control of the end result." At-home whitening is generally the cheaper of the two options.
For those opting for in-chair whitening, you can usually expect for your teeth to become several shades lighter during the appointment. "On average most patients can expect to see results for six months. I'd recommend topping up with home teeth whitening to keep the results lasting longer."
Can anyone have their teeth whitened?
Teeth whitening isn't for everybody. It's really important to get a check-up before going to your appointment, to make sure that your teeth are in good shape and to discuss anything that might exclude you from whitening. "Patients with untreated holes in their teeth (cavities), gum problems (periodontitis), or sensitive teeth should have these issues resolved before treatment," says Patel. "Any patients with an allergy to certain peroxides should avoid teeth whitening, as should pregnant women and breastfeeding mums."
It's good to be aware of the realistic outcomes of whitening. It's not always possible to achieve the desired shade and occasionally you may see uneven patches of whiteness.
"Existing tooth-coloured fillings, crowns, and veneers won't respond to the bleaching process, so patients need to discuss this with their dentist and work with them to achieve the results they want," he explains.
At-home whitening kits have become increasingly popular and effective. Most larger pharmacies and supermarkets now stock a range of options allowing you to whiten your teeth at home for a low price.
"There are many over-the-counter teeth whitening products available on the high street which are not illegal to buy, but regulations state these can only contain up to 0.1% hydrogen peroxide (the whitening agent) which is too low to have any noticeable effect on the colour of your teeth," says Patel.
Whilst they won't be as effective as professional teeth whitening, these over-the-counter products are safe when used as instructed. There is some risk that since this type of whitening isn't carried out by a professional, whitening substances may come into contact with gums or cause damage or sensitivity.
However, there are serious risks involved in buying unregulated products in that you may not know for certain the ingredients or concentration of the product. Lots of fake products claim to offer miraculous results, but these aren't usually real and could cause major damage.
Brushing your teeth twice daily is an essential part of maintaining good oral hygiene. Many of us have now swapped our regular toothpaste for one that promises whiter teeth - but do they work?
"Regular, non-whitening toothpastes are designed to help remove some surface stains as they clean teeth and improve the health of your mouth," explains Patel. "Whitening toothpastes help make your smile brighter by removing even more surface stains. These toothpastes typically contain more abrasive ingredients, such as silica, which scrub the surface of the teeth."
Most whitening toothpastes shouldn't cause you any problems. However, charcoal toothpastes have become an increasingly popular trend as a natural 'alternative' to traditional whitening toothpastes. But they could actually do more harm than good. Charcoal can cause the enamel to erode, exposing yellow dentine tissue, increasing sensitivity and making teeth more susceptible to decay.
DIY teeth whitening
If you're looking for DIY methods of teeth whitening - stop! A quick search on Pinterest brings up all kinds of suggestions for sparkling white teeth: baking soda, lemon, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing teeth with the inside of a banana peel ... It goes without saying that these are ineffective and sometimes dangerous alternatives.
"Social media serves as a great source for both education and connection. But when it promotes quick-fix, risk-free solutions in lay terms to appeal to the masses, it may well give patients unrealistic and unattainable goals regarding their likely outcome," says Patel.
In essence, there is no evidence that these methods are safe or effective. Your best bet for whiter teeth is to seek professional advice, he continues.
"As a dentist, my advice to patients is that there is no substitute for a proper oral healthcare routine which involves brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing, and regular check-ups with your dentist."