How to Whiten Your Teeth (and How Not To)

February 03, 2020

02.05 PM New Blog Post

The color of your teeth is determined by a number of different factors, only some of which you have control over. 

That’s because genetics plays a role, both in the color and thickness of your enamel. If you’ve always had yellow-tinged teeth but have not had an ongoing issue with cavities, your enamel is probably naturally yellow-tinted. If cavities have been a problem for you, it may be that your enamel is naturally thinner than most and what you’re seeing is the dentin underneath (which is yellow for everyone.)

But, there are other factors that you can control when it comes to the color of your teeth. There are some foods that are known to stain teeth — such as coffee and red wine — that you can cut back on or regularly rinse out after you consume them. Smoking badly discolors teeth, and that’s just one of a thousand reasons to quit that habit. Finally, poor oral hygiene can leave your teeth looking discolored because plaque and tartar both create a yellowish coating on the surface of your teeth that gets darker near the gumline. 

That all being said, the ideal smile today is bright white. So, millions of people are interested in whitening their teeth. And, no matter what’s causing the discoloration, there are methods and products out there claiming to give you a brighter smile. But, some are safe and effective while others are potentially harmful and may not even work. 

Let’s look through some of the most popular options out there and see what the facts show about how safe and effective they are. 

Unsafe and ineffective

The following options may show up on YouTube or Facebook every now and then, but beware! Not only are these teeth whitening options not going to effectively whiten your teeth, but they’re also potentially dangerous: 

  • Wiping with fruit peels - Some people claim that rubbing their teeth with the peels of oranges, lemons, or bananas whitens their teeth. This is likely based on studies that have proven that d-limonene and citric acid — compounds found in trace amounts in some fruit peels — have proven effective as whitening agents in toothpaste formulas. However, these compounds are only effective in adequate concentration, and there’s simply not enough on a fruit peel to accomplish the goal. There is enough acid on many fruit peels, however, to do damage to your enamel. 
  • Not following the directions - As you proceed through the sections that follow, you’ll notice a constant refrain: if you’re using a product that chemically whitens your teeth, it’s absolutely vital that you follow the directions closely. Doing so should keep the product safe. Failing to do so can do tremendous damage to your teeth.

Safe but ineffective

These recommendations aren’t going to harm you, but they’re also probably not going to help whiten your teeth (unsubstantiated anecdotes aside):

  • Oil pulling - This is a traditional practice from Indian culture that has become popular in recent years. It involves swishing a tablespoon of edible oil (usually coconut, although olive and sesame are also popular) around in your mouth for 15-20 minutes daily. The oil does remove bacteria from the mouth, including Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria most associated with plaque. Some people believe that doing so habitually will result in whiter teeth in individuals whose discoloration is strictly due to plaque buildup. Success is strictly anecdotal at this point, however.
  • Eating raw fruits and vegetables - You absolutely should eat plenty of fruit and veggies, both for your overall health and your oral health. However, some people believe doing so will effectively whiten their teeth, and that’s simply not true. The most common foods singled out as natural teeth whiteners are strawberries and pineapple. A mixture of strawberries and baking soda is touted as effective, but a clinical study debunked that claim. Another study established that bromelain — an enzyme found in pineapples — helps remove stains on enamel when included as an ingredient in toothpaste. But, there’s no evidence that eating pineapple offers the same effect.

Unsafe but effective

The following options will definitely whiten your teeth. However, they’re not the best way to go about it. Either they’re known to damage your teeth or health, or there’s reason to suspect they could be harmful:

  • Hydrogen peroxide (above 3% dilution) - Hydrogen peroxide is a natural bleaching agent with strong antibacterial qualities. If you put it in your mouth routinely, it will definitely whiten your teeth over time. However, it’s important to note that concentrations higher than 3% have proven to cause gum irritation and tooth sensitivity. There’s reason to suspect very high concentrations may even increase the risk of oral cancer, although that hasn’t been proven. See the next section for tips on safe use of hydrogen peroxide.
  • Vinegar - Vinegar, and especially apple cider vinegar, has a lot of clinically proven health benefits. Among these, studies confirm that its active ingredient, acetic acid, has both antibacterial qualities and a bleaching effect on the teeth. However, vinegar has also proven to soften tooth enamel significantly. Since soft enamel leaves your teeth vulnerable to cavities, sensitivity, and even premature loss, the end doesn’t justify the means. 
  • Activated charcoal - The use of activated charcoal for at-home teeth whitening blew up in popularity in 2017, in part due to videos on the subject going viral on social media. At the time, the way people were using it proved highly destructive to tooth enamel, although that didn’t become apparent right away. And, the practice definitely did whiten teeth, although not as effectively as many other methods. The trouble was in its abrasiveness. Over time, brushing with charcoal will wear away enamel, weakening your teeth and, ironically, making them more yellow as the underlying dentin is exposed. A few years having passed, studies have been done and activated charcoal has shown up as an ingredient in toothpaste. It’s still not as effective as other proven methods, but it will whiten your teeth to some extent.

Safe and effective

Here, finally, is your shortlist of the best options available for whitening your teeth. These are both safe and effective when following the directions:

  • Whitening strips - These readily available products are highly effective and they work fast. In fact, dentists will often recommend their patients use whitening strips before committing to a more extensive professional service because, for some patients, it’s adequate to satisfy their needs. The caution is that you need to follow the directions closely. Don’t try to enhance the effect by leaving the strips on your teeth longer or applying them more often than recommended. Doing so won’t improve the results, but can push whitening strips into the previous category: unsafe but effective.
  • Whitening gels - The gels work a lot like whitening strips, and they’re just as effective. The same cautions apply as well. For many people, they tend to be a little easier to use and make it easier to obtain full coverage of the entire tooth surface when compared to strips. 
  • Professional whitening - Most dentist’s offices offer professional whitening services, which are probably the fastest and most effective option available today. They use basically the same technology as whitening gels but are usually using much more powerful chemical formulas. Under professional supervision with experienced and knowledgeable staff on hand, what would otherwise be unsafe for you to try at home becomes safe and highly effective. The only potential drawback is the cost, which is far higher than any DIY options discussed here. (A dental discount plan that includes whitening services can go a long way to mitigate this issue.)
  • Whitening toothpastes - Every major toothpaste brand has some form of whitening toothpaste available. These products have been developed using ingredients and concentrations proven to be safe and effective. And, they’re relatively inexpensive. The only caveat is that brushing with a whitening toothpaste is not a fast solution where drastic improvement is quickly noticeable. It takes a lot of time with consistent use, but you can definitely expect results if you stick with it.
  • Baking soda - Baking soda is a mild abrasive that can remove surface stains without damaging the enamel. And, it creates an alkaline environment in the mouth which prevents bacterial growth, reducing the yellowing effect of plaque buildup. Numerous studies have backed up the fact that baking soda is both safe and effective for natural teeth whitening and as part of a daily oral health regimen. That’s why it’s become a popular ingredient in many toothpastes. You can do it yourself by creating a paste from one teaspoon of baking soda in two teaspoons of water. Like whitening toothpastes, baking soda won’t produce instant transformation but will whiten teeth over time.
  • Hydrogen peroxide (at or below 3% dilution) - As noted above, hydrogen peroxide definitely works to whiten teeth. But, at too high a concentration, it’s not safe or pleasant. The best way to safely whiten your teeth with hydrogen peroxide is to use it as a mouthwash prior to brushing. Most readily available hydrogen peroxide comes in 1.5% or 3% dilutions. If yours is more concentrated than that, simply add water to dilute it below 3%. Then, rinse with a mouthful for one minute before brushing your teeth. Combining a hydrogen peroxide rinse with baking soda during brushing has proven to get teeth 62 percent whiter in just six weeks. Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda have been combined in a few commercially available toothpastes as well.

Perhaps the best option for a bright smile is avoiding foods and habits that cause discoloration in the first place. Here are some tips: 

    • When possible, drink beverages like coffee and wine through a straw so that every drop doesn’t need to pass through your front teeth.
    • Rinse or brush your teeth after consuming foods and drinks that can stain your teeth.
    • Stop smoking and chewing tobacco.
    • Make sure you’re getting enough calcium, which will help keep your enamel thick and strong.
    • Control sugar intake and practice good oral hygiene to cut down on plaque and tartar.

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