If you google “best teeth whitening kit,” you’ll quickly discover that there are dozens upon dozens of products available. And to complicate things even more, there are different types of kits. The sheer amount of options is enough to leave your mind reeling.
Strips, pens, gels, rinses, toothpastes—the list goes on. Where do you even start? Which whitening method works best? Not all whitening kits are created equal. In this guide, we’ll sift through the gimmicks and fads so you can choose a whitener that’ll have you grinning in no time.
Popular Whitening Kits On the Market
There truly is something for everyone when it comes to whitening – from whitening strips to whitening toothpaste. And generally speaking, most of them work the same way: they include some concentration of hydrogen peroxide (or carbamide, another type of peroxide). That peroxide safely permeates the enamel to lift both surface and deep stains. There are some kits that include other ingredients, but the vast majority use peroxide.
But exactly how that peroxide gets in contact with your teeth varies from kit to kit. Let’s take a quick glance at the most popular kit types and how they work:
Whitening strips are one of the oldest and most popular kit types on the market. No matter what brand you choose, a strip is usually a thin strip of textured plastic that is covered with a gel-like substance. Usually, you’ll attach one strip to each arch of teeth and leave them on for 30 to 60 minutes. During that time, the peroxide soaks into your teeth to lift away stains. After a week or two of treatment, strips usually whiten teeth by several shades.
Sometimes people struggle with sensitivity due to prolonged exposure to peroxide. Plus, the straight-cut strips often touch edges of the gums, causing sore tissue.
LED kits have spiked in popularity in recent years, with kits popping up from brands like SNOW, Smile Direct, AuraGlow, Byte Pro, and many, many more. While no two kits are exactly the same, they all contain two key elements: a wand or pen that contains a whitening serum and a plastic tray that’s lined with LED lights. During a treatment, you apply the serum to your (brushed) teeth, insert the light, turn it on, and hold the tray in your mouth for roughly 10 to 30 minutes (or two 5-minute treatments in some cases).
These kits don’t cause much sensitivity since you can avoid direct contact with your gums. That said, the verdict is still out as to whether the LED light makes a substantial difference with your treatment. Some research suggests that the light helps “activate” the whitening agent, speeding up your treatment. But other research suggests that the light doesn’t make an appreciable difference in your treatment. Those researchers claim that it’s the serum that really does the work in those kits.
Regardless of whether the LED lights make or break the kit, there’s no denying that LED kits have helped a lot of people achieve the bright smile of their dreams.
Whitening pens look a lot like the wands included in an LED kit. And you use them similarly: after you’ve brushed your teeth, you paint the serum onto your teeth. After about 5 minutes, you rinse it off and go about the rest of your day. Ideally, this type of treatment requires multiple applications each day.
There are some downsides to whitening pens, though. With only five minutes of exposure, their effectiveness is limited. Plus, your saliva can wash away some of the serum, putting you at risk of streaky results (or none at all). And many of these serums include peroxide concentrations as high as 35%. That’s a staggering amount, and normally only dentists use that much.
Many dental professionals recommend kits with trays because the tray helps keep the whitening serum in place on your teeth better than an LED device or a strip. There are two primary different types of trays: boil-and-bite trays and custom-fitted trays.
If you get an over-the-counter kit, odds are you’ll buy a boil-and-bite system. These trays have a minimal shape to them out of the box; you boil them and (once cool enough to handle), you bite down so they conform to your teeth…relatively speaking. Then you apply the serum and wear the tray for the treatment duration. These trays help, but they fit perfectly, so there’s a chance some serum will seep out.
That said, many dentists—and several online mail-order companies—offer custom-fitted trays by using impression kits or 3D scans of your teeth. These are some of the easiest methods to use because they allow the whitening agent to cover every exposed surface of your teeth for complete coverage (and next to no saliva washout). Custom trays tend to be more expensive, though.
Odds are, your family dentist (or someone in their office) offers professional whitening treatments. If you’re willing to shell out the cash necessary to pay for your dentist’s expertise, in-office bleaching is second to none. You’ll get faster results with in-office treatment. Here’s why: the American Dental Association doesn’t recommend exceeding 10% hydrogen peroxide for at-home treatments (though the industry usually regards 20% or less as safe; the ADA has a higher standard than the FDA does). But your dentist can safely use formulas as high as 35-45%.
In a typical bleaching session, your dentist will apply a serum to your teeth for at least one 20-minute application. Some will have one longer session, and some choose to repeat multiple shorter sessions. And some add in LED light devices. Once treatment is complete, many dentists will apply a desensitizing serum to help rehydrate your teeth and eliminate sensitivity.
Take a walk down the toothpaste aisle at your local drugstore or grocery store, and you’ll find tube after tube of ‘whitening toothpaste’. Unlike most of the options we’ve listed above, these don’t always contain carbamide or peroxide. Many do. But some contain “mild abrasives” instead. For example, baking soda toothpastes or charcoal toothpastes are toothpastes with mild abrasives. Essentially, these agents try to scrape off stains.
In general, whitening toothpastes only give limited results. For one thing, they only contain tiny concentrations of peroxide (if any). And the whitening agents are only in contact with your teeth for two minutes at a time. So any results you have will take a long time to show up, and they’ll be limited to surface stains only. That said, whitening toothpastes are a good way to maintain results after a more thorough whitening treatment.
A trip down the oral care aisle will also reveal lots of different kinds of mouthwashes, including whitening mouthwashes. In theory, the concept is pretty appealing: after brushing your teeth, you pour some wash, swish it in your mouth for about 30 seconds, and spit it out. That’s beautifully simple.
Unfortunately, though, many whitening mouthwashes don’t appear to work. That’s because they’re only in your mouth for a very short time. And usually, the concentration of peroxide is very low. For example, the Crest 3D Whitening Glamorous mouthwash only contains 1.5% peroxide. That’s not really enough “oomph” to move deep stains. Like a whitening toothpaste, a whitening mouthwash is probably better for protecting against future stains.
So What Whitening Treatment Works Best?
In general, a whitening treatment works well if it meets these criteria:
- Contains a high enough concentration of peroxide to break up stains
- Contains a low enough concentration of peroxide to avoid tooth sensitivity (yes, there should be a happy medium
- Stays on the teeth for an extended amount of time (ideally at least 10 minutes a day, maxing out at 60 minutes per session)
- Contacts the teeth, not the gums
Because of the time factor, whitening rinses and toothpastes are generally less effective. These products are pretty good for minor surface stains or maintaining your shade after a more extensive treatment. But since they don’t stay on your teeth for more than 2 minutes at a time, toothpastes and rinses aren’t powerful enough to remove deep stains. Plus, these products usually don’t contain high concentrations of peroxide (if they have any peroxide at all).
On a similar note, whitening pens can be less effective than other methods simply because your saliva might wash away the serum. Some brands stay on your teeth better than others, but you can’t rid your mouth of saliva for twenty minutes. And since these pens have nothing else to keep the serum fixed to your teeth, they don’t work as well for many people.
Trays, strips, and LED kits are usually all pretty effective. Granted, not all of these products are created equal; but generally, since these types stay affixed to your teeth for a safe but extended amount of time, they have the time and power they need to draw stains out from your enamel.
Ultimately, you’ll need to pick a kit that works well with your lifestyle. For example, if you read for an hour before bed, you might decide to wear whitening strips during your reading session and then remove them before you sleep. If you apply makeup in the morning, you might choose to hold an LED light in your mouth while you put on mascara. If you want to keep up with your normal routine as you whiten, you might pick custom-fitted trays.
That said, the most powerful, consistent whitening method is professional bleaching at a dentist’s office. After all, your dentist can use a higher concentration of peroxide; some use formulas as high as 35% in 2 or 3 twenty-minute-long intervals for rapid, same-day results. And they’ll also be able to target your teeth exclusively, not your gums.
But what’s the best over-the-counter whitening method?
There’s a lot of reasons you might not want to get whitening from your dentist. Obviously, there’s a heftier price tag; it’s fair for your dentist to charge between $400-$600 (on average) per treatment. You pay for their expertise. And of course, there’s the challenge of scheduling an appointment. Making time for a routine cleaning is one thing, but your schedule might make it tough to handle extra appointments for whitening.
If that’s you, rest assured there are plenty of great whitening options available to you. Our favorite pick is Crest’s 3D Whitestrips. With an affordable price tag, proven results, thousands of customer reviews, and a simple treatment regimen, it’s hard not to recommend them.
That said, if you’d rather not use strips (many people with sensitive teeth find them unsustainable to use for long periods), Smile Direct’s Bright On LED Whitening Kit is another great option. The two short treatments per day are simple, and that minimal exposure gets you great results without causing sensitivity.
Is it Safe to Whiten at Home?
In general, it’s not a good idea to DIY something related to your oral health. But whitening is an exception to that rule. It’s perfectly safe to whiten your teeth at home, but you’re more than welcome to leave the work to your dentist, too.
If you do decide to whiten at home, though, there are several strategies to keep in mind to protect your overall oral health:
- Choose a formula with a safe concentration of peroxide: Peroxide in small quantities is non-toxic, and it’s also enamel safe. But use it for too long (or use too much of it), and you’ll run the risk of making your teeth sensitive or worse, damaging your enamel. Many dental professionals say that it’s safe to use formulas with up to 20% peroxide on your own. But if you want to be ultra cautious, the American Dental Association gives their seal of approval to formulas with 10% peroxide or less.
- Consider adding a desensitizing gel to your treatment regimen: If you struggle with sensitivity post-treatment, you can proactively counteract that by applying a desensitizing gel to your teeth immediately after treatment. Whitening partially dehydrates your teeth, making your nerve endings more sensitive. A desensitizing gel will help rehydrate your teeth, reducing that discomfort.
- Follow the instructions perfectly: Technically, you can make any treatment unsafe if you use it incorrectly. For example, you could damage your gums by fixing strips to your teeth poorly. Or you could make your teeth too sensitive by using a formula for more than the prescribed time. Basically, if the box says not to use the formula for more than an hour at a time, don’t use it more than an hour. If you follow the instructions, you should safely achieve your desired results.
Whitening kits are like snowflakes: no two kits are created equal. Some will give you quick, effective results. Some won’t change your shade at all. But there are plenty that will whiten your teeth safely and relatively quickly. Ultimately, it’s up to you to pick the whitening kit that works best for your lifestyle. Hopefully this guide has helped you narrow down which treatment will fit your needs.
Congratulations—you’re well on your way to a brighter, whiter smile!