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Whiter Teeth Will Make You Smile

By Judy Latta

A bright, white, picture-perfect smile can do wonders for your appearance, self-esteem and confidence. According to a survey by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD), almost all adults believe an attractive smile is an important social asset. When asked what they would most like to improve about their smile, survey respondents most often said whiter teeth.

As you age, changes in your tooth enamel and dentin cause your teeth to darken. Over time, your teeth naturally lose brightness and take on shades of yellow, gray and brown. Per the American Dental Association (ADA), one major reason is the food and beverages you consume. Coffee, tea, red wine and berries, for instance, have intense color pigments called chromogens that attach to enamel and darken it, while acidic products like soda and citrus fruits can cause bright, white tooth enamel to dissolve. Cigarettes, chewing tobacco, some medications, chemotherapy and radiation can also stain teeth, and children who are exposed to antibiotics at a very young age can have excessive tooth discoloration as adults. Additionally, mouth trauma can cause teeth to turn gray. Finally, even if you are careful about what you consume and you vigilantly protect the health and safety of your mouth, aging alone will cause your teeth to change color. Below the hard, white tooth enamel is a softer layer called dentin. Over time, daily use of your teeth wears away your enamel exposing the darker dentin underneath.

Whitening Treatments

Of course, brushing and flossing are your first line of defense against discoloration but often they are not enough to keep your smile as bright as you would like. Whitening treatments are designed to counteract changes to your smile, either by deep cleaning the teeth to remove the stains that are causing the discoloration or by bleaching the teeth to lighten their color. Options for whitening your teeth include in-office dental procedures, dentist dispensed at-home treatments and over-the-counter whiteners.

Professional Cleaning. A major component of your whitening regimen is your regular bi-annual hygiene appointment at which your hygienist will clean and polish the surfaces of your teeth and clean in between your teeth. Occasionally, a deep cleaning may be needed to remove bacteria, tartar, plaque and other debris that collect at and under the gum line.

In-Office Bleaching. Dentists use whitening products containing a safe bleaching agent, typically either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, to break down stains, diminish darker colors and brighten the appearance of teeth. For an in-office bleaching treatment, your dentist will apply either a thick gel or a rubber shield to protect your gums and then use a potent lightening agent to refresh and brighten your teeth. The AACD recommends professional whitening in a dental office as the best method for a bleaching treatment because dentists use stronger, more effective agents than at-home whiteners and are knowledgeable about how to protect your enamel, gums and mouth from these agents. Results can sometimes be seen after only one professional bleaching treatment.

In-Office Laser Treatment. A laser or light can be added to an in-office bleaching procedure to enhance treatment outcomes. Heat generated by the laser can boost effectiveness of the bleach and speed up the whitening process. In-office laser treatments, although costly, can produce fast and dramatic results.

At-Home Whitening Trays. If you like the idea of whitening your teeth under the supervision of your dentist, but prefer to do the procedure yourself, your dentist can provide you with a whitening gel to be used with bleaching trays specifically made to fit over your upper and lower teeth. This do-it-yourself treatment is carried out for a prescribed period of time, gradually whitening your smile. You can also purchase a lower strength peroxide gel with trays over the counter at your pharmacy or grocery store.

Paint-On Whitener Brushes and Pens. The paint-on whiteners work similarly to the over the counter trays, except no appliance is needed. Rather, the bleaching gel is adhered directly onto the surface of the teeth using a brush or pen applicator. The gel solidifies on the teeth and forms a film that treats the surface of the teeth and then is eventually rinsed away. This treatment can be used on your entire smile or on specific teeth if you have particular problem spots.

Whitening Strips. Over the counter whitening strips contain small quantities of peroxide gel and are designed to stick to your teeth so the bleach can work to lighten them. The concentration of the bleaching agent is relatively low, but with use over time, the strips can improve the brightness of your smile.

Whitening Toothpastes and Rinses. All toothpastes have mild abrasive agents for scrubbing teeth to remove surface stains, but whitening toothpastes have slightly stronger polishing agents for more significant stain removal. Whitening rinses are typically made as a compliment to whitening toothpastes and most have low concentrations of hydrogren peroxide for brightening teeth and alcohol for killing bacteria. Whitening toothpastes and rinses are generally made to be used on a daily basis, and while moderately effective for removing tooth stains, their primary value is in preventing additional darkening and maintaining brightness.

Precautions

Potential Sensitivity. In some cases, whitening agents, whether in-office or over-the-counter, can irritate the nerve of your tooth and cause tooth sensitivity and sometimes even pain. Typically, this sensitivity is temporary, and you can try your treatment again at a later time. Some people, however, will experience pain every time and may not be able to use products for whitening their teeth.

Potential Ineffectiveness. Unfor­tunately, not all teeth can be whitened. According to the ADA, “yellow teeth will probably bleach well, brown teeth may not respond as well and teeth with gray tones may not bleach at all. Whitening will not work on caps, veneers, crowns or fillings. It also won’t be effective if your tooth discoloration is caused by medications or a tooth injury.”

Always Consult with your Dentist. The ADA recommends that you only use a bleaching product after consultation with a dentist: “A thorough oral examination, performed by a licensed dentist, is essential to determine if bleaching is an appropriate course of treatment.” The Consumer Guide to Dentistry cautions, “although you can get over-the-counter whiteners without a dentist’s recommendation, if you over-use them or use them incorrectly, they can harm your tooth enamel and irritate your gum tissue. Also, over-bleaching can produce an undesirable bluish hue, chalky whiteness or uneven results, otherwise known as ‘the technicolor effect.’ Supervision by a dentist can prevent these problems.”

No matter which type of treatment you prefer, if you are self-selecting products, be sure to choose only those with the ADA Seal of Acceptance to protect your enamel, gums and mouth.

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