They say laughter is the best medicine, but if you’re self-conscious about your teeth, you may not feel like smiling all that much. Fortunately, teeth whitening processes — both over-the-counter and at your dentist — have come a long way. But before you pick up those whitening strips at the drugstore, or head to your doc’s office, here’s what you need to know.
1. Always check the label before you buy.
If you’re taking the at-home whitening route, it’s important to pay attention to which ingredients are in the kit that you buy. “Most conventional whitening toothpastes largely work by using an abrasive called silica to mechanically scrape stains off of teeth, hence the ‘whitened’ result, not by actual bleaching,” explains Dr. Justin Rashbaum, DMD at Supersmile Intelligent Smile Care.
Aim for a kit that actually bleaches your teeth if you want real results. “Look for whitening products that contain peroxide,” recommends Dr. Timothy Chase, cosmetic dentist and practicing partner at SmilesNY. “It is the only product proven to whiten teeth.”
2. If your teeth are sensitive, head to the dentist first.
Having sensitive teeth isn’t a deal breaker when it comes to teeth whitening, but it does mean a little extra caution is required. “I recommend seeing your dentist if you have sensitive teeth, as they may be a sign of dental problems,” says Dr. Chase. As long as your teeth are cavity-free and your gums are healthy, whitening should be safe. Dr. Chase adds, “If your teeth are okay but you simply have sensitivity, your dentist can help with desensitizing treatments.”
3. Your teeth might not all end up the same color.
Despite the uniformly white teeth you see in every ad for a whitening product, yours might not be consistent across the board. “Fillings, veneers, and crowns will not change color with teeth whitening,” explains Dr. Chase. “Different colored teeth will get different results — for example, gray teeth typically don’t whiten that much.”
4. You can get great results at home — but don’t expect miracles.
There are plenty of teeth whitening kits that can deliver results, though you might not get a movie star-worthy grin in a week. “At-home whitening can get teeth three to five shades whiter, but it takes a longer period of time,” says Dr. Chase. “Professional whitening can get you better results faster.”
The downside: pro whitening can cost anywhere from $200 to $1500 dollars, while many at-home kits are priced at a fraction of that. If you have the cash to spare — and are in a serious hurry — head to the dentist. Otherwise, you may want to see how your teeth fare with the drugstore stuff.
5. Know your at-home options.
If you opt to whiten your own teeth, weigh your options. “Custom trays are the best at-home option, while whitening strips come in second,” informs Dr. Chase. With the whitening trays, make sure you use a minimal amount of the bleaching agent for each tooth — since the trays were made to contour your teeth, applying too much can cause the bleach to migrate elsewhere.
Got minimal time and don’t feel like putting in a ton of effort? “Toothpastes are the easiest option, as they’re very common and simple to use,” says. Dr. Rashbaum. (Just not the aforementioned abrasive silica ones!)
6. Pay attention to how your teeth react to the whitening.
You wouldn’t keep using a hair dye if it caused you irritation, would you? Same goes for teeth whiteners. “If you experience sensitivity or if the edges of your teeth start to appear see-through, you should stop the whitening regimen,” warns Dr. Chase.