News & Politics

Dentistry: Teeth Whitening Product Review

What’s the best way to get a gleaming smile? Is bleaching teeth safe?

Have a Great Smile

Want whiter teeth but not sure the best way to get them?

There are three basic options: whitening kits you buy in a store, trays custom-made by a dentist, and in-office bleaching.

It’s a matter of how much time and money you want to spend and how much brighter you want your teeth to be.

Over-the-counter kits, usually used for 7 to 14 days—a new Rembrandt kit promises a whiter smile in two hours—are the least expensive choice. Dentists say that kits, which range from paint-on gels to strips to trays, produce the least dramatic results, although some say that for mild discoloration they work fine.

The kits work best if your teeth have just been professionally cleaned, says Tenleytown dentist Brian Gray, because the product can better penetrate teeth when filmy buildup is gone.

In our survey of area dentists, we asked, “Do you recommend over-the-counter bleaching?” More than 500 dentists answered this question and were split, with 52 percent saying yes. Of those, 75 percent recommended Crest Whitestrips.

“The other types of kits—the home whitening that comes with trays—the trays sit very sloppily, and people end up swallowing some” of the whitening agent, says DC dentist Michael Blicher. He says paint-on treatments get swallowed away too.

Trays made in a dental office are custom-fitted to teeth and filled with a bleaching agent stronger than what is available over the counter. They cost $325 to $650 in Washington. With some systems, patients wear the trays twice a day for half an hour each time; in others, once a day for 30 minutes to two hours is recommended.

In-office whitening from, for instance, Zoom!, Rembrandt, and BriteSmile ranges from about $600 to $1,000. Those systems use light and stronger bleach, although some studies have shown that the light may not make a difference. “The solution is the key,” says DC’s Dr. John Drumm. The treatment takes about 45 minutes; patients are in the office about an hour and a half because gums and other sensitive areas have to be covered.

Dr. Drumm says in-office whitening combined with custom trays for three to five days produces results similar to using trays for two weeks.

Tooth and gum irritation are possible, temporary side effects of any bleaching, although new solutions have lessened sensitivity.

How white do teeth get? In some cases, the change is dramatic; in others, there’s barely a difference. Dr. Blicher says yellow stains from normal wear and aging are easier to remove than gray stains, such as from tetracycline.

How long do teeth stay white? Results can last one to five years—it depends on whether you smoke or drink red wine, coffee, and tea. (Hint: Use a straw where you can, to lessen discoloration.) Dr. Drumm says he’s never had to redo a full course of whitening; instead, he advises patients after every dental cleaning to use the trays a few days for a touchup.

Does bleaching hurt teeth? Dr. Gray says dentists were concerned initially, but 15-year studies have shown no harm to teeth or enamel. “We see a lot of the newscasters in our office,” he says. “They are bleach addicts. For ten years they’ve been doing this every six months. If anyone would have had trouble, it would have been them, and we’ve never seen any effects.”

Pediatric dentist Dana Greenwald does caution against bleaching kids’ teeth.

“There have not been enough studies to convince me it’s safe to bleach an 11-year-old’s teeth,” she says. “There are other dentists who probably are fine with it. I would not do it under 14.”

Dr. Gray says he bleached his 12-year-old daughter’s teeth and feels it’s safe for kids: “It’s become popular as a 16-year-old’s birthday present. They get that big white smile before the driver’s-license picture.”