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Your Ultimate Guide to Tooth Whitening

You’re looking at photos from this past weekend and noticing that your teeth aren’t nearly as white as your best friend’s. It’s not that your teeth are yellow, but they aren’t as bright as they could be. (Somehow, there’s no good filter to cancel out discoloration from your daily latte.) Stains can feel impossible to avoid, too, since everything from tea to a glass of wine at dinner can cause them—and, to make matters worse, they’re notoriously difficult to get rid of with just your usual toothpaste and floss. Enter teeth whitening! But how do you make sense of all the options? Here, your guide to getting your whitest and brightest smile.

How, Exactly, Does It Work?

Teeth whitening products basically bleach your teeth with either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide (which is processed into hydrogen peroxide). Bleaches break down the stains on teeth—typically caused by drinks like red wine and coffee, age, or certain medications—to make the color less saturated and give them a brighter overall appearance.

Can I Do It Myself or Do I Need to Go to the Dentist?

There are a ton of tooth-whitening options out there, including treatments you can do right at home and treatments your dentist will provide. Regardless of which way you’re leaning, it’s a good idea to talk to your dentist before you get started. Certain kinds of stains won’t respond well to most whitening treatments, and whitening won’t work on caps, veneers, or crowns.

How Many Types of Tooth Whitening Are There?

Quite a few, and they vary in terms of price and the time investment.

  • Stain-Removing Toothpaste: These use mild abrasives and polishing agents (instead of bleach) that scrub the teeth, working away superficial stains. You can purchase these pretty much anywhere, and they’re fairly affordable and easy to work into your routine—just swap out your old toothpaste. The downside is that the results might not be as noticeable as stronger bleaching treatments, particularly if your stains are dark, and they only remove the most superficial stains.
  • Teeth-Whitening Gel Pens: Think of it like a tooth version of the stain-removing pen you use on your clothes. Pens are a great option for people on the go: You simply paint the product onto your teeth wherever you are. However, you won’t be able to eat or drink anything for a while after applying, and you’ll need to be careful to get the product over the entire surface of each tooth.
  • Teeth-Whitening Strips: These products come with a whitening gel pre-applied; all you do is peel off the backing and stick them on your teeth for the directed amount of time. These strips take a few weeks to work but do the job well, as the bleaching agent has time to work on your teeth and it sticks easily to them. You’ll need to be diligent about using them every day, and you won’t really be able to talk while you’re wearing them, so you’ll need to find a good time to work them into your day (try doing them during your workout!).
  • In-Office Bleaching: Yes, this involves a trip to your dentist. But often, this treatment requires just one hour-long visit in which your dentist will apply strong bleach to your teeth to whiten them. And with the proper care and maintenance, the results can last up to a year.
  • At-Home Bleaching Tray: Your dentist can take a mold of your mouth and create a tray that’ll hold the bleaching solution. The process is a little lengthier than doing it in the office—and takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to reveal a difference—but you can also whiten while catching up on that really good book.

Are There Any Downsides?

Let’s begin with the bad news: Tooth sensitivity, which occurs when the bleach goes through the enamel and irritates the tooth’s nerve, is a common side effect. The good news: This sensitivity tends to be temporary, and there are easy and affordable ways to avoid and relieve the pain. Try avoiding drinks and food that are very hot or cold, as well as things that are acidic (like citrus fruits). In the tooth care aisle, you can pick up a toothpaste formulated to help reduce sensitivity. And one small study found that patients who chewed gum after a whitening procedure reported less sensitivity than those who didn’t—just make sure your gum is sugar-free!

What Else Do I Need to Know After I’ve Picked a Treatment?

Take steps to avoid staining your teeth again. Make sure to floss daily and brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day. Avoid tooth-staining foods and beverages if you can. When you can’t (we understand the need for coffee), use a straw, and swish your mouth with water after consuming them. Oh, and one more thing: Say cheese!

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