Teeth Whitening: The Ultimate Guide
In recent years, tooth whitening has become immensely popular.
But when you first start researching it, or even when you’ve tried a product or two, it can be rather confusing.
There are many products that thrive off this confusion. They often promise results but fail to deliver.
Worse, there are illegal products and services that can seriously harm your teeth.
To make sure you don’t waste your time and money, or endanger your health, we’ve created the ultimate whitening resource alongside our in-house dentist Dr. Chhaya Chauhan.
- A whitening video course to explain everything in person
- An explanation of the most confusing aspects of whitening
- A simplified overview of whitening
- A series of standalone articles for when you want more detail
And if you can’t find what you’re looking for in any of the above resources, leave a comment on one of our posts or contact us and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
Key Points About Teeth Whitening
- Yellow teeth can be perfectly healthy
- Professional Teeth whitening doesn't need to be expensive
- Teeth whitening is safe if done correctly
- Natural methods will at best remove stains
- Cheap products / kits aren't the same as professional whitening
- You should get a dental check up before starting whitening
Good Posts To Get Started With
Our Whitening Product Buying Guides
Popular Whitening Topics
Do 'natural' teeth whitening methods work?
Common Whitening Questions
A Simplified Overview of Teeth Whitening
The overview below covers the most important things to know if you’re considering any form of whitening.
It’s important to state up front that yellow teeth can be perfectly healthy.
Tooth whitening has become quite the trend recently, but it is purely a cosmetic treatment.
If you are concerned about the colour of your teeth, the best place to start is at the dentist. It could save you time and money in the long term, and it will benefit your health.
In the majority of cases, whitening at the dentist is not covered by NHS treatment so you will need to pay for it privately, but as we explain below it doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
The following article will give you a quick insight into whitening before you go deeper into its various topics.
First of all we’ll explain why whitening has become such a confusing topic.
Why is teeth whitening confusing
From the research we’ve completed, the confusion around whitening stems from several factors:
- “Teeth whitening” has become an ambiguous term
- Whitening results vary from one person to another
- Advertising misleads people
- Social media selfies mislead people
- Products vary significantly between the UK and the USA
We elaborate on all of the above in this article, but keep reading for a quick run through of the entire topic.
There are two types of whitening
We mentioned above that teeth whitening has become an ambiguous term, and this is because it has come to describe two different things: stain removal and bleaching.
These are two different procedures, but this isn’t always made apparent by products and the marketing used to promote them.
Stain removal vs bleaching
Bleaching is used to change the colour of your inner tooth. This is referred to as intrinsic whitening.
Stain removal is used to remove stains from the outside of your tooth, this is called extrinsic whitening.
Stain removal is something you may be able to take care of at home using products from the shops, although a scale and polish at the dentist is more effective.
Bleaching needs to be performed by your dentist — this is referred to as professional whitening.
We’ve written more about professional whitening here.
We’ve written more about the best whitening kits and methods here.
How can you tell if you need stain removal or bleaching?
The best way is to visit the dentist. A scale and polish at the dentist is the most effective way to remove stains.
If your teeth still look more yellow than you would like after doing either of the above, you will need to consider professional bleaching.
It’s worth noting that “whitening products” such as kits, strips and pens will not do a better job of removing stains than a scale and polish.
Products you can buy online or in the shops
Why are shop-bought whitening products so popular?
Considering that whitening products can be expensive but are less effective than a trip to the dentist, you may wonder why they are so popular.
It seems that this is partly because of the confusion around whitening. People's expectations do not align with the reality of what these products can achieve.
Marketing for products misleads
As we’ve mentioned above, there are two types of whitening — intrinsic whitening (for the inner tooth) and extrinsic whitening (for the outer tooth).
For intrinsic whitening, peroxide bleach and a professional procedure is needed.
Over-the-counter products can only target extrinsic whitening, but many manufacturers do not make this fact clear when promoting their products.
Some people therefore buy extrinsic whitening products, but expect the results of intrinsic whitening.
We go into more detail on this in our article on why teeth whitening can be confusing.
What’s the best whitening product to try at home?
The best product to try at home is a whitening toothpaste. It’s cheaper than other options, and will remove the majority of stains. Use it twice a day for one to two weeks, with the correct brushing technique.
If your teeth still look more yellow than you would like after this, consult your dentist as you may need professional bleaching to make them whiter.
You may be wondering about some of the other whitening products that are available — kits, strips, pens, lights etc.
Generally our advice is to avoid these. They tend to be more expensive, but their results are the same as using a whitening toothpaste.
We have created a range of articles covering this in more detail:
Shop-bought whitening products cannot achieve the same as professional bleaching
By law in the UK, over-the-counter (OTC products) — those that you can buy online or in the shops — can only contain 0.1% hydrogen peroxide.
In comparison, the gel that a dentist dispenses to you for custom bleaching trays can contain up to 6% hydrogen peroxide — that makes it up to 60 times stronger than OTC products.
For this reason, OTC products are best regarded as stain removal products — they cannot bleach your teeth in the same way that custom trays can.
They do contain a very small amount of peroxide, so technically they could bleach your teeth ever so slightly, but the difference will be minimal.
OTC products are things like whitening kits, strips, mouthwash, pens, and toothpaste. Their results are limited, and can’t achieve anything more than a scale and polish at the dentist will.
We cover this more in our professional whitening article.
US whitening products are different to UK whitening products
As we point out in our article on why teeth whitening is confusing, the laws are different for whitening products in the USA, which can contain up to 10% hydrogen peroxide — even more than a UK dentist can dispense.
This means that some of these products may be more effective than UK products, but naturally come with more risks.
Because of the way these products work, there is a greater chance of your gums coming into contact with the high strength peroxide they contain, which is bad for your mouth.
We cover this in more detail in our article on the best whitening strips.
Not all products can be trusted
As we point out in our article on safe teeth whitening, there are some people that sell bogus bleaching kits or procedures.
These can contain an illegally high dosage of peroxide and can permanently damage your teeth and gums.
Furthermore, even when buying a whitening kit without peroxide in it, you cannot be entirely sure where it has been made, or what other chemicals it contains. You therefore need to be careful when using it and should first have a dental check up.
Natural methods will at best remove stains
Various types of “natural” whitening methods have also become popular in recent times. These include oil pulling, charcoal, turmeric and more.
We have covered these in our article on natural tooth whitening.
Like shop-bought products, natural methods will at best remove stains.
Again, nothing other than peroxide has the ability to bleach your teeth. There is little evidence to suggest natural methods can even remove stains.
Some of them are safe enough to try if you are careful, but don’t expect very yellow teeth to be turned white.
Safe & Healthy Whitening
You need healthy teeth before you begin whitening
Before you start teeth whitening, it’s important your teeth are healthy. You should have a dental check up before you start anything.
If you begin your whitening journey at the dentist, your more likely to save time and money in the long run.
Why do teeth go yellow in the first place?
There are a variety of reasons that teeth turn yellow, we cover these in our article on yellow teeth.
The yellowing of the inner tooth is different to the yellowing of the outer tooth, and this is why there are different methods of whitening the teeth.
It’s worth noting that the inner tooth naturally yellows with age, but there are various other reasons that it happens as well.
Similarly, the outer tooth can pick up stains for a variety of reasons. These outer stains can also make your teeth look yellow, but are different in nature to when the inner tooth is yellow.
You can minimise outer stains by reducing your intake of things that stain, such as tea, coffee, red wine, etc. We have included a list of things that stain teeth here.
Yellow teeth are not something to be embarrassed about, but if you do want to address them the best place to begin is at the dentist.
Teeth whitening is safe if done correctly
Professional bleaching carries more risks than stain removal because it involves putting high strength peroxide into your mouth. However, it is perfectly safe if carried out by a qualified dental professional.
If you have a bleaching procedure performed by someone who isn’t qualified, or if you incorrectly use high strength gel on yourself, it can damage your teeth permanently.
In fact it is illegal to offer teeth whitening (when using peroxides), unless you are a registered dental professional.
We cover this in detail in our article is teeth whitening safe?
You can overdo it with stain removal or bleaching
A stain removal product such as a whitening toothpaste tends to be more abrasive than a normal toothpaste. For this reason, you should not use one for a prolonged period nor use it too frequently, as it could wear down your enamel.
Other stain removal products such as strips and whitening kits should also not be used too often. If a kit comes with a whitening light, this light dehydrates your teeth, which can lead to an increase risk of cavities and actually make your teeth more yellow long term!
If you have professional bleaching trays made, your dentist will advise you on how often to use them. Usually you need to wear them for about 2-6 hours per day for one to two weeks for the initial bleaching procedure, then one day / night a month to keep the whitening topped up.
We cover this in more detail in our professional whitening article.
Professional teeth whitening doesn’t need to cost a fortune
Depending on the initial price that you see for professional teeth whitening, it can seem very expensive. However, there is quite a price range.
Bleaching trays can cost as little as £150, which when you consider some shop-bought whitening kits are £50, it isn’t that much more to pay, especially as one bleaches your teeth and the other only removes stains.
We run through the various costs and options in detail here.
Laser whitening isn’t as special as it seems
Laser whitening is sometimes referred to as ‘instant’ whitening because the results are visible after two hours in the dentist’s chair.
However, the laser is doing little to whiten your teeth. It causes your teeth to become more dehydrated, which is the reason they look so white immediately after the treatment.
Because of this dehydration, laser whitening typically causes more sensitivity and for most patients it is a worse alternative to bleaching trays, which offer more control over the procedure.
For this reason, it is becoming a less popular method of whitening among dentists and patients.
We explain laser whitening vs custom trays here.
Cheap products / kits aren't the same as professional whitening
Although they can look similar, whitening kits that you buy online or in the shops are very different to custom trays that are professionally made by your dentist.
Some whitening kits even say things such as “professional whitening” on them. This is simply to sell the product, there is no professional qualification to them.
One size does not fit all
Whitening kits come with a whitening tray that looks similar to a custom bleaching tray. The difference is the custom bleaching tray is made to fit your teeth specifically. This ensures the high strength gel is held in place and that vitally, it does not touch the soft tissues in your mouth.
A shop-bought whitening kit should not be using high strength gel (if it is legal), but still the one-size-fits-all tray that they come with is unlikely to fit properly to your teeth.
Results vary from person to person
The results of tooth whitening can vary significantly from one person to another.
Everyone’s teeth react differently to professional bleaching. The effectiveness of this procedure depends on how well you’ve looked after your teeth in the past.
Besides the effectiveness of whitening, everyone has different colour teeth to begin with.
Someone with naturally white teeth will appear to have more luck with stain removal than someone with naturally yellow teeth.
After all, the stain removal is simply revealing their natural tooth colour, not changing the colour of the tooth like professional bleaching does.
Don’t assume that because you’ve seen reportedly good results for someone else, either on the internet or in person, you can expect the same from your teeth.
Results don’t last forever
In fact, once you’ve finished bleaching your teeth, the colour will dull down a shade in the following few days as the teeth rehydrate after the treatment.
Once you return to eating foods that stain, the teeth will naturally pick up stains too. The best thing is to maintain a healthy mouth by having a good oral health routine.
With the home whitening trays you can top up the whitening one night a month to maintain the color of your teeth.
Whitening can cause sensitivity
When you whiten your teeth, they become temporarily dehydrated. As oxygen returns to the teeth over the coming hours and days, you may experience some sensitivity.
It is for this reason that laser whitening can cause more sensitivity — it dehydrates the teeth more.
With whitening trays, if you start to experience sensitivity you can stop for a day or two before continuing.
If you have a single tooth that is discoloured, a slightly different procedure is used.
If you have a single tooth that is more discoloured than the others, this is usually because the nerve has died (often from some sort of impact or trauma).
In this instance a root canal will be completed first, and then the tooth can be bleached using internal whitening.
We explain the procedure for internal whitening here.
Children don’t need teeth whitening
Teeth whitening has becomes so ubiquitous that even kids ask about it for themselves.
However, it is not necessary at all. Some parents are concerned that it is a sign of unhealthy teeth, but this isn’t the case.
Whitening isn’t advisable if you’re pregnant or breast feeding
There have been no known cases where there have been any detrimental effects on babies due to tooth whitening.
However, tooth whitening is a non-essential and cosmetic procedure, so to avoid unnecessary risk it is best to hold off doing it until after pregnancy and breastfeeding.
We go into more detail on this here.
Don’t take risks with your teeth
Our main aim with this content is to make sure you don’t opt for bad teeth whitening — it can damage your teeth permanently, cost you money, and cause months or years of distress.
If you are not sure about a product, or someone offering a service, do some further research and trust your instincts.
See our post on safe teeth whitening for further advice.
What are your questions about whitening?
If you’ve got any further questions about whitening, be sure to leave a comment on any one of our posts and we’ll happily get back to you with some advice.