You’d like to have a whiter smile, but there’s that one nagging doubt at the back of your mind: is whitening safe?
You only get one smile, and it’s natural to want to protect it. You’d hate to make a cosmetic improvement to your teeth, only to realize that your newly-whitened teeth are damaged beyond repair or that you’ve harmed your long-term dental and physical health.
That makes it critical to answer the question of whether whitening is safe. And in this guide, we’ll do just that. The short answer: yes, teeth whitening is perfectly safe, provided you use the kits correctly. But let’s dig into why that’s true, and how you can ensure your safety from start to finish.
What Are the Risks Associated with Teeth Whitening?
For most people, the only real risk associated with teeth whitening is temporary tooth sensitivity. But it’s also not uncommon for would-be-whiteners to wonder if teeth whitening will damage their enamel or if accidentally swallowing some will harm their health. To answer those questions, let’s talk a little bit about how whitening works.
Most whitening products use one of two active ingredients: hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. And contrary to any rumors you may have heard, peroxide does not damage your enamel. When included in a whitening formula, peroxide actually penetrates the enamel to reach the dentin, which is what affects the color of your teeth. And once there, peroxide lifts away stains.
There is no evidence that whitening has any long-term effects on your enamel. In fact, the only effect peroxide has on your teeth is that it temporarily dehydrates them. That’s what causes sensitivity mid-whitening, actually. Essentially, the peroxide pulls away a tiny bit of water from the insides of your teeth every time you whiten. But that water level restores itself naturally, so it’s not a problem.
Another big concern people have is the risk of accidentally swallowing whitening serum. And that’s natural. The idea of ingesting peroxide is unsettling at best. The good news: in any whitening kit, the concentration of peroxide is low enough that a trace amount, when swallowed on accident, won’t damage your digestive system in any way.
That said, there are two groups of people who should generally avoid peroxide-based whitening systems: pregnant women and children under the age of 14. Pregnant women should avoid bleaching products because it’s still unclear if and how whitening ingredients can affect a baby’s development (and better safe than sorry!).
Dentists recommend that kids avoid whitening products until age 14 because that allows them to lose all of their baby teeth. It also ensures that the enamel and tooth pulp have all fully formed, which reduces the risk of sensitivity and damage.
5 Steps to Make Whitening ASAP (As Safe As Possible)
We’ve established that whitening is a safe practice. But you can make even the safest activity dangerous if you do it incorrectly. Let’s talk about how you can ensure your whitening endeavors stay safe and effective.
1.) Talk to your dentist about recommended at-home products
We won’t lie; we have some of our own favorite whitening kits. But that doesn’t mean you should rely on our word alone when you pick a whitening kit; it’s a good idea to chat with your dentist, too. This is especially true if you’re worried about sensitivity or if you have a lot of pre-existing dental solutions. Your dentist knows the ins and outs of your overall oral health, so they’ll be able to help you pick a tooth whitening kit that includes a safe concentration of peroxide. And they’ll also help you decide between in-office bleaching and at-home products, too.
If you (or your dentist) want to be super cautious, you should look for whitening products that have the American Dental Association’s seal of approval. There are plenty of safe products available at any drugstore, but the kits that have that approval have to go the extra mile for safety.
2.) Understand what whitening can and can’t fix
Whitening can only brighten the surface of natural teeth. So if you have any crowns, fillings, implants, or veneers, don’t expect them to change colors. Even if you apply the whitening for longer than you’re supposed to (an unsafe practice because it sets you up for gum damage and extreme tooth sensitivity), you won’t see them brighten at all. If you want to make any fillings or implants change colors, you’ll need to have your dentist change them for you.
Likewise, keep in mind that whitening isn’t all-powerful. There are some discolorations that whitening kits can’t fix. Teeth that are some shade of yellow should respond well to bleaching treatments. That’s because yellow shades are usually caused by aging and staining foods. Brown or even gray teeth, however, will not respond to bleaching—those colors are caused by much deeper issues like decay and breakage. The only way to fix those teeth is to have them removed, replaced with an implant, or covered by a veneer.
3.) Have a routine dental cleaning before whitening
Regular dental cleanings are always a good idea, but they’re even more important if you want to start a whitening treatment. This is especially true if you haven’t been to the dentist in a while.
Even if you take excellent care of your teeth, you will experience some buildup of plaque and tartar. It’s unavoidable. A good routine dental cleaning will help remove any of that buildup. And when you’re starting a whitening treatment, that’s essential because plaque and tartar do not whiten like your teeth do. Plus, a good dental cleaning removes a few minor surface stains, giving you a head start on your whitening. A cleaning also gives you a clean surface to start on, reducing the risk of patchy whitening results.
But more importantly, a routine cleaning and checkup roots out potential problems like cavities or gum disease, both of which need to be addressed prior to whitening. For example, many people experience a little gum irritation during whitening treatments, even with healthy gums. If you started whitening with slightly damaged or irritated gums, you’d be setting yourself up for trouble. But a cleaning helps you rule out those possibilities or address them as needed.
4.) Follow the instructions on the kit to the letter
No two whitening kits are exactly alike. Some use a low concentration of peroxide, and others contain concentrations as high as 35% carbamide peroxide. Some kits require you to use them for just 5 minutes twice a day, and others can be used for up to an hour.
Each company knows the ins and outs of their formula, and they write their instructions accordingly. They come up with specific details like treatment time and application procedures to ensure safe use of their kit.
When you’re in a rush to see your whitest possible smile, there is the temptation to speed things along. If you’re using a whitening strip that requires an hour of wear, you might want to wear them overnight…but you shouldn’t. Exceeding the recommended treatment time, applying too much serum, or completing too many treatments per day can all make an otherwise safe treatment unsafe.
5.) Skip your grandma’s whitening methods
If you Google “natural whitening methods,” you’ll probably encounter a lot of advice that sounds like one of your grandma’s home remedies. For example, some beauty blogs might tell you to brush with a paste containing activated charcoal. A DIY site might tell you to mix baking soda and water and brush with the paste you create. A holistic health article might advise you to oil pull, eat strawberries, use lemon peel or orange peel on the surface of your enamel, or rinse using apple cider vinegar.
…Honestly, the list of “natural remedies” for teeth whitening is kind of overwhelming. Humans are certainly creative!
But in many cases, those natural remedies can actually cause more harm than good. For starters, pastes with substances like charcoal and baking soda remove stains because they’re abrasive. And abrasives can wear away at your enamel. The same goes for substances like strawberries, citruses, and apple cider vinegar; all of those products are high in acidic content. While they won’t instantly damage your teeth, using them routinely could harm your teeth. We recommend sticking with remedies that you can buy in-store or from your dentist.
I’m Experiencing Sensitivity. Should I Be Concerned?
Sensitivity to pressure and extreme temperatures within the mouth is actually a really common side effect of teeth whitening. So if you finish a whitening session and feel some pain when you drink a glass of ice water, don’t be alarmed. Sensitivity doesn’t mean that you’ve damaged your teeth in any way.
In fact, sensitivity occurs because whitening agents (namely peroxide) dehydrate your teeth. Everyone’s teeth contain trace amounts of water. That moisture acts as a little buffer between the nerve endings in the core of each tooth and external stimuli like hot and cold. When that water gets pulled away, you might feel some discomfort. As soon as your teeth rehydrate, that sensitivity should go away.
Sensitivity can occur even if you use whitening kits correctly, but you increase your risk of sensitivity if you use the kit for too long or complete too many applications per day. If you use it correctly and experience sensitivity, you do have options. A desensitizing serum can help rehydrate your teeth quickly. Alternatively, you can reduce the application time or skip a day of treatment until your teeth don’t feel as sensitive. You can also switch to a formula with less peroxide.
Tooth sensitivity related to whitening is uncomfortable, but it’s usually not caused by any serious problems. That said, if you had sensitivity prior to whitening, you may want to talk with your dentist to ensure that your teeth are still in good shape.
Whitening, when done correctly, can be perfectly safe. Hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide do not damage your enamel. Follow the right steps, and you’ll be able to whiten your smile without issue.
If you have any further questions about a specific whitening kit, or which kit is right for you, we recommend chatting with your dentist for personalized advice.