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What is Teeth Bleaching?

According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD), 99.7% of Americans believe a smile is an important social asset.1 The survey participants were also asked what they would want to improve about their smile. Most people indicated that they wanted “whiter and brighter teeth.”

Teeth bleaching is a safe and effective way to get whiter and brighter teeth.

What’s the Difference Between Bleaching and Whitening?

Whitening is the overarching term for getting whiter teeth. Tooth bleaching is one type of whitening process. 

Whitening is the process of restoring teeth to their natural shade, whereas bleaching usually involves whitening teeth to a shade beyond their natural color.

Often, the terms are used interchangeably. Both can be done either in a dental office or at home.

Whitening can either be mechanical or chemical.2 Mechanical whitening is the physical removal of  surface stains using abrasive agents, such as polishing paste. 

Chemical whitening breaks down stains to make them less visible. Bleaching products contain either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. These react to oxygen to brighten teeth. Dentists may use lasers or lights to accelerate the whitening process.

Types of Teeth Whitening Treatments

There are many types of teeth whitening treatments. Here are some of the most common:3

  • Whitening toothpastes and mouthwashes
  • LED whitening kits
  • Whitening pens 
  • Whitening trays
  • Professional whitening treatments

1. Professional Teeth Whitening

Only dental professionals can provide in-office teeth whitening. The concentrations of whitening agents they use are higher than those found in over-the-counter treatments. 

During in-office whitening, your dentist or dental hygienist will likely provide gum shields to protect the sensitive tissues from irritation. You will see results immediately after the 30- to 60-minute treatment.4

If over-the-counter (OTC) treatments do not achieve your desired level of brightness, you might consider professional teeth whitening. Your dentist will tell you if you are a good candidate for in-office teeth whitening. 

Pros
  • Contain higher concentrations of the bleaching agent
  • Dentists provide gum shields to protect the gums
  • Brightens teeth more than any other treatment
  • Only needs to be repeated every 6 to 12 months
  • Provides instant results
Cons
  • Costs between $500 and $1,000 per treatment
  • Can result in temporary sensitivity5

2. Teeth Whitening Trays

Tray based whitening treatments are available over-the-counter or through your dentist. They use fitted trays containing carbamide peroxide gel. Depending on the manufacturer's instructions, they are worn for 30 minutes to 2 hours a day or overnight. Teeth lighten one to two shades in a few days.4

Tray based whitening treatments are best for people who want at-home treatments with professional advice. The initial cost is typically between $100 and $600 for custom trays. Once you have the custom trays, you only need to repurchase the gel.

Non-custom whitening trays cost around $10, but they won’t fit as comfortably.

Pros
  • Professional dental advice and instruction
  • Whiten teeth in the comfort of your own home
  • Whiten teeth at your own pace
  • Less expensive than completely in-office whitening treatments 
Cons
  • Takes longer
  • May cause sensitivity
  • Non-custom trays can lead to uneven whitening

3. Whitening Strips, Gels, and Toothpaste

These whitening products are generally the most inexpensive. You can buy them over-the-counter, and they are best for mild tooth stains. Usually they can lighten teeth one to two shades.

Whitening strips are plastic strips lined with a thin layer of peroxide gel. You apply them directly to the teeth and typically need to wear them for 30 minutes twice a day for 14 days. 

Some newer types only need to be applied for 30 minutes a day to get the same result. Results are also noticeable after just a few days.4

Gels use the same peroxide-based gel, but they come in a tube. The tube has a brush applicator that allows you to apply the gel directly to your teeth.

Pros
  • Inexpensive
  • Easily accessible — can be bought in drugstores or online
  • Can easily replace your normal toothpaste and mouthwash with whitening alternatives
  • Gels can be used for specific problem areas
  • Less sensitivity
Cons
  • Takes longer than other whitening to see results
  • Can only lighten teeth one to two shades
  • Must be repeated more frequently
  • Strips may not stay firmly in place

4. LED Whitening Kits 

LED whitening kits come with a gel whitening agent in a brush applicator and an electrical component containing LED lights. 

To use an LED whitening kit, apply the whitener directly to the teeth and turn on the blue LED light. This activates the agent and creates a chemical reaction. This combination safely and effectively brightens teeth in 8 to 30 minutes.

Pros 
  • Inexpensive — most kits cost under $200
  • Enamel-safe ingredients
  • Specifically designed for at-home use
  • Short treatment time
Cons
  • Takes longer than in-office treatments
  • Many require a fixed power source, meaning you have to stay in one place during treatment

Tips for Preventing Tooth Discoloration 

Your teeth might be more prone to staining right after you whiten them. To prevent them discoloring again, you can:

  • Give up smoking — Tobacco contains the chemicals tar and nicotine, both of which stain teeth. Smoking also increases the risk of many other health issues.
  • Limit foods and drinks that stain — Tomato-based sauces, dark colored sauces, coffee, red wine, and dark sodas contain compounds that stain your teeth.
  • Use a whitening toothpaste — Using a whitening toothpaste approved by the American Dental Association (ADA) can help maintain white teeth.6
  • Drink plenty of water — By drinking a glass of water after eating or drinking, you can help rinse away any acids or particles that cause stains.7
  • Use reusable straws — Reusable straws allow liquids to bypass your front teeth. This prevents dark beverages from leaving stains.

Summary

Teeth whitening is an excellent treatment to improve your smile. Bleaching can make your teeth more porous and therefore more prone to staining immediately after treatment. 

Avoid highly pigmented food and drinks to prevent new stains from forming. 

Use whitening toothpaste to maintain white teeth. Always check with your dentist before trying any over-the-counter (OTC) whitening treatments.

Last updated on April 21, 2022
7 Sources Cited
Last updated on April 21, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Whitening Survey, Summer 2012” American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Aug. 2012
  2. Fiorillo, L. et al “Dental Whitening Gels: Strengths and Weaknesses of an Increasingly Used Method” Gels, 4 Jul. 2019
  3. Mark, A. M. “Getting whiter teeth” The Journal of the American Dental Association, 19 Feb. 2017
  4. Carey, C. M. “Tooth Whitening: What We Now Know” J Evid Based Dent Pract., Jun. 2014
  5. Alqahtani, M. Q. “Tooth-bleaching procedures and their controversial effects: A literature review” Saudi Dent J.,  Apr. 2014
  6. Accepted Products” American Dental Association, n.d.
  7. Tooth Discoloration” Cleveland Clinic, n.d.
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