Take a quick trip into your local drugstore or the oral care line at your grocery store, and you’ll see row after row of whitening treatments: strips, rinses, toothpastes, pens, and more.
Ask your dentist about whitening, and they’ll tell you all about their in-office bleaching treatments. They might even offer to schedule your first session before you leave.
But which is right for you: in-office whitening or at-home kits? That’s a relatively tough question to answer. Both will get your teeth whiter, but the two aren’t created equal.
Fortunately, in this guide, we’ll compare in-office bleaching and at-home whitening kits in several categories: cost, effectiveness, sensitivity, and more. By the end, you’ll know exactly which treatment is right for you.
Let’s dig in!
A Ticket to Your Dream Smile: Whitening Treatment
Let’s be clear: whitening treatment一when used correctly一will always yield results. And more importantly, you can achieve a similar shade of whiteness with both in-office and at-home treatment. The time it takes to get that level of whiteness, however, will vary depending on the method you choose.
Here’s why: everyone’s teeth start at a certain shade of white or off-white. Tooth shade is actually a genetic reality. Some people are simply born with whiter teeth. But no matter what shade of white you start with, your teeth will yellow over time. It’s an inevitable fact of life. Between general wear and tear as you age, mediocre hygiene, wine, coffee, and habits like tobacco use, your teeth gradually get stained.
Whitening treatments include an active ingredient that the industry calls “bleach.” But it’s not Clorox bleach (that’s toxic; do not, we repeat, do not put chlorine bleach in your mouth to try to DIY teeth whitening). When the dental industry says “bleach,” it’s actually referring to peroxide. Teeth whiteners contain a concentration of hydrogen peroxide (or its counterpart, carbamide peroxide, which is about one-third of the strength of hydrogen peroxide). Peroxide, when applied to the surface of the teeth, permeates deep into the enamel to lift both surface and deep-seated stains.
Here’s the thing: your dentist doesn’t use a “special ingredient” in their whitening formula. Both at-home and in-office whiteners use a form of peroxide…so both methods can achieve the same results. But there are substantial differences between the two. That’s where the rest of this guide comes in. Let’s talk about the key differences between in-office whitening and at-home whitening treatments. By the time we’re done, you’ll have a perfect idea of which treatment is right for you.
In-office Whitening vs. At-home Whitening: Key Differences
Money. It’s always a factor, right? Whitening your teeth is always an investment. But how big of an investment it is depends on the treatment you choose. Even though most whiteners use the same ingredients (and a pretty similar formula), the price tag varies wildly. That price tag is especially high for in-office treatments.
For example, the average in-office treatment costs about $600 per session. If you need more than one session or you opt for laser whitening (a pricier variety), it can cost more than $1,000 to get the smile you want. But if you opt for at-home treatment, you’ll probably pay somewhere between $25 to $150 per kit. You might need one or two at-home kits, but the price will still be much lower.
Why such a drastic price difference? In a few words: your dentist’s time and resources. Each whitening session lasts about an hour to an hour and a half, and you have to pay for your dentist’s time. Plus, you’ll be reimbursing your dentist for the materials they use (and in a way, the training they got for whitening, since it is a special skill distinct from generic cleanings). That brings a hefty price tag.
But with at-home treatments, you mainly pay for materials and production costs. You don’t have to pay for your own expertise (or lack thereof). That keeps the price relatively low.
Both in-office and at-home treatments will brighten your smile, but exactly how you get that brightened smile varies. Let’s take a quick snapshot of how whitening works.
If you pay your dentist to whiten your teeth, you’ll show up at their office. But instead of starting with an X-ray or other routine check-in details, your dentist starts out by measuring the starting shade of your teeth. Then, you’ll have your teeth polished to prep them for treatment. Next, your dentist will use a cheek retractor and protective equipment to keep the whitening formula off of your gums, cheeks, lips, and eyes. After that, the whitening gel is applied in a thin layer. That layer stays on your teeth for 15-20 minutes, and then it’s removed. This process can be repeated a few times in one session if needed; most people need one or two sessions.
The process for at-home treatment, however, varies from one kit to another. In general, you’ll brush your teeth, apply your whitening strip or serum, and leave it on your teeth for roughly 30 minutes to 1 hour. You repeat this process every day for one to two weeks until you reach your desired shade. If your teeth feel a bit sensitive, you can skip a day or two until the sensitivity goes away.
Speed of results
With both in-office and at-home treatment, you’ll see results. But how quickly you see those results depends on the type of treatment you choose. At-home treatment kits have the most variance with how quickly you see results; some kits give nearly same-day results, and others take up to two weeks to show you the brightest shade of white you can get. In-office treatment, however, gives you pretty dramatic results on the same day. It usually doesn’t take more than 2 sessions or so to reach your desired shade.
Why the discrepancy? For the most part, that difference stems from the whitening formula you use. At-home treatment kits usually cap out at a certain percentage of hydrogen or carbamide peroxide. For example, some strips contain 10% hydrogen peroxide, an LED kit might contain 35% carbamide peroxide, and a pen might have another concentration. It all varies.
But the peroxide percentage for at-home kits can only get so strong. The American Dental Association recommends using at-home kits that are in the 10% range for hydrogen peroxide and no more than 22% for carbamide peroxide (remember that carbamide peroxide is about one-third of the strength of hydrogen peroxide).
Your dentist, however, can use whitening formulas with much higher concentrations. Most use a formula with close to 35%, but some use formulas as high as 45%! Thanks to their training and application technique, only dentists can use formulas that strong. And in turn, your dentist can give you quicker results.
If you’ve talked to other people about whitening, you might have heard horror stories about tooth sensitivity: the feeling of having holes drilled into your teeth, not being able to handle hot or cold foods, tingling between the front two teeth…you get the idea. Tooth sensitivity is one of the most common side effects from whitening.
Sensitivity isn’t always avoidable. After all, whitening agents actually dehydrate your teeth a bit (yes, your teeth contain water, too). That water actually acts as a buffer for the nerve endings in your teeth. So when the hydrogen peroxide pulls that water away, your teeth become a bit more susceptible to discomfort. Some people experience more sensitivity than others.
You can’t always prevent sensitivity completely, but if you’re doing at-home treatments, you can mitigate your risk in a few ways. First off, ensure that you use a formula that contains a safe concentration of peroxide (more peroxide = more dehydration, i.e., more sensitivity). Make sure that the whitener gets on your teeth only; many people accidentally burn their gums and cheeks by applying sloppily! And most important of all: follow the instructions on the packaging. If the kit says to apply whitening serum for only 30 minutes, stick with 30 minutes. Exceeding the recommended application time is a surefire way to make your teeth sensitive. The faster results you might get aren’t worth the risk to your teeth.
Your dentist, thanks to training and careful application, can mostly avoid that sensitivity. That’s not to say you won’t experience any tooth sensitivity, but it’s not as likely with in-office treatment. And to help matters, your dentist will probably follow your treatment with a desensitizing serum, which rehydrates your teeth to reduce discomfort.
So Which is Right for You: At-home or In-office Whitening?
Long story short: it depends. You can chat with your dentist to get recommendations for your unique smile; for example, if you have a lot of fillings or veneers or crowns, you may need to have those recolored in-office after whitening (peroxide only whitens natural teeth, not porcelain and bondings). Or let’s say you’re prone to sensitivity, the best way to avoid it is to have in-person treatment with your dentist. Your dentist can best apply the serum in a way that it doesn’t irritate your teeth too badly.
But maybe you’ve got a photo session, crucial interview, big date, or another important event on your calendar. If that’s you, you might be in a rush to see your brightest smile ASAP. In-office whitening is the quickest way to get it (provided your dentist has appointment availability). Many at-home treatment kits are pretty quick, but most take a couple days to show noticeable results. In-office treatments can brighten your teeth by several shades in just a single session.
And there’s always the money factor, right? If you’re on a tight budget, at-home whitening kits are definitely more affordable, but you’ll have to be a touch more patient to see results. Or let’s say you’re a homebody, or it’s hard to fit appointments into your busy schedule, then you might find at-home treatments are more convenient. You can do at-home treatments on your own schedule.
The moral of the story: you’ll have to pick the method that best fits your budget, timetable, and lifestyle.
Things to Keep in Mind Before Whitening
No matter what whitening method you choose, there are a few ways you can make your treatment as effective as possible. For starters, you’ll get the best results if you have your teeth cleaned prior to treatment. Whitening gels and serums cannot penetrate plaque and tartar, so you could end up getting patchy whitening results if you have any gunk on your teeth. Plus, a good tooth cleaning will remove a few surface stains, allowing you to make the most of your whitening treatment.
If you don’t want to shell out the cash for in-office treatment but you do want a kit provided by a dentist, chat with yours. They might be able to provide you with a take-home kit. A lot of dentists offer strips or whitening trays as two popular choices.
Once you’ve whitened, you’ll want to protect your new smile. To do that, you should avoid things that can re-stain your teeth. This includes red wine, coffee, tea, acidic foods like tomato sauce and certain berries, smoking tobacco, and so on.
That’s not to say you can never enjoy those things again. But avoiding them somewhat will make your results last longer. It’s especially important to avoid these foods in the first few hours immediately after treatment, since your teeth are prone to “soak in” pigments after being exposed to the peroxide.
Last but not least, you may want to do a little treatment maintenance to keep your smile bright. Even if you avoid all the foods and habits that are most likely to stain your teeth, your teeth will still begin to yellow again after treatment. So you might want to get an at-home treatment kit (or ask your dentist for a take-home kit) so you can do treatments every 3-6 months to keep your smile bright.
Both in-office whitening and at-home whitening treatments are perfectly safe and successful. But which you choose can have a big impact on your wallet, your schedule, and your tooth sensitivity levels. Hopefully this guide has helped you decide which is right for you; we wish you the best on your whitening journey!