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One of the leading reasons people seek dental assistance is to have whiter teeth.  Indeed, a bright, white smile does more than just improve one’s looks; it also boosts self-confidence and makes one feel a lot better about himself.

As more and more people seek solutions to achieve those pearly whites, remedies have likewise proliferated — from advanced professional in-office options to easy do-it-yourself home techniques.

Whitening and Bleaching: What’s the difference?

Strictly speaking, teeth whitening refers to methods used to restore the teeth’s surface color through the removal of dirt and debris.  Teeth bleaching, meanwhile, is the whitening of teeth beyond their natural color with the use of products that contain bleach.

In present day cosmetic dentistry parlance, however, the term teeth whitening is used to also describe teeth bleaching techniques.

How Teeth Whitening Works

The hard, calcified, translucent outermost layer of the exposed tooth is called the enamel.  The enamel envelops and protects the dentin, which in turn gives the tooth its color.  The teeth whitening process uses bleach, normally hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, which is applied on the enamel.  The solution will subsequently bleach the dentin, resulting in teeth that appear whiter.

Causes of Tooth Discoloration

  • Genetics – Some people just don’t have naturally bright teeth shade as others.
  • Food – Acidic foods open up the pores of the tooth enamel, causing teeth to stain more easily.  Soy sauce, berries, cherries and other foods with lots of pigment are examples of food that cause teeth stain.
  • Drinks – Coffee, tea, colas, red wine and certain juices can cause staining.  Extremely hot and cold liquids cause teeth to expand and contract, allowing stains to penetrate teeth more easily.
  • Cigarettes and Tobacco – Smoking and chewing these products cause staining that is very difficult to remove.
  • Aging – Teeth enamel thins through wear and tear, causing the yellow dentine layer to show through.  The teeth also accumulate and produce more stains over time.
  • Poor Dental Practices – Nothing beats brushing, flossing and regular checkups and cleaning to maintain healthy, white teeth.  However, over-brushing with a hard-bristle brush and abrasive toothpaste can thin out the teeth’s enamel.  Mouthwashes that contain cetylpyridinium chloride or chlorhexidine, as well as excessive intake of fluoride can also stain teeth.
  • Disease and Medications – The long term use of antihistamines, antidepressants, certain antibiotics, and some acne and arthritis treatments can cause teeth discoloration.
  • Injury – Trauma can cause nerve problems and physical cracks which may discolor teeth.

Professional In-Office Teeth Whitening

Arguably the most popular cosmetic dental procedure in the world at present, in-office teeth whitening is safe, effective, and usually produces immediate results.

With this procedure, a highly-concentrated bleaching gel containing hydrogen peroxide is applied to the esthetic zone teeth (teeth that are visible when you smile) for about 15 to 30 minutes.  The gel is then washed off and the teeth are inspected to see how well they have whitened.  If necessary, gel is re-applied one or several times more until the desired result is achieved.  Some treatments incorporate the use of intense light focused on the teeth.   Although opinions vary, this particular step is generally believed to enhance the whitening process.

Follow-up in-office bleaching sessions or take-home bleaching regimen may be advised by your dentist to ensure optimal results.

In-office teeth whitening (also referred to as chairside whitening, professional whitening, power bleaching, power whitening) is a generally safe procedure although there may still be some risks involved.  Tooth sensitivity is the most common side-effect although this usually subsides 24 hours after the procedure.

It is also important to note that there are certain discoloration conditions that do not respond well to in-office whitening.  These include inorganic stains; discoloration caused by trauma; and stains caused by tetracycline antibiotics ingested during tooth formation, among others.

Although in-office whitening results are dramatic and almost immediately apparent, they are by no means permanent.  Over time, teeth will accumulate more dirt and stains.  On top of good dental hygiene practices, dentists may recommend home maintenance follow-up with a lower-percentage bleaching agent.

At-Home Teeth Whitening Techniques

There are a number of economical and convenient teeth whitening procedures that can be done at home without professional supervision.

  • Take-Home Whitening Trays – With this procedure, the bleaching agent is placed in a mouth guard (tray) which preferably should be form-fitted by a dentist.  This is worn overnight over a period of one to two weeks.  Generic, over-the-counter disposable and non-disposable trays are also available.
  • Whitening Strips – This relatively new innovation involves the use of thin, flexible strips of plastic that are coated on one side with a thin film of bleaching agent. They are positioned across the teeth and gently pressed into place to create maximum contact.  The strips are normally intended to be worn for 30 minutes at a time, twice a day.
  • Paint-on Whitening Gel – With this method, paint-on whitening gel is painted directly on the surface of the teeth with a special applicator.  For optimal results, the teeth should be cleaned and dry before application.
  • Teeth Whitening Pastes – These products help remove surface stains and effectively keep the teeth cleaner, thereby giving the appearance of whiter teeth.  However, they do not bleach and therefore do not whiten beyond the teeth’s surface color.

These products are readily available and can normally be obtained without a dentist’s recommendation.  However, incorrect or over-usage can be harmful to the tooth enamel and the gum tissue.  Over bleaching can also result in the unsightly “Technicolor effect” which gives the teeth uneven bluish and chalky whitish shades.

Dentist supervision can prevent or solve these problems.  Seeking a dentist’s advice is still the best first step towards attaining that winning, sparkling white smile.

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