Teeth Whitening Treatment

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What is Professional Teeth Whitening?

Professional teeth whitening is an effective and conservative cosmetic treatment that lightens discolored teeth. Whitening has been practiced in dentistry for many centuries. Over time, dental professionals introduced safe, effective, and predictable whitening methods that are still used today.

Teeth whitening is one of the most common elective dental procedures because it is inexpensive, highly effective, and produces fast results. The most common age group to receive treatment are adults (18+). Although, the majority of patients are in their 30s and 40s.

Nearly one million Americans whiten their teeth every year, resulting in $600 million in revenue for dentist offices.

Many people invest in whitening treatments to improve their appearance and boost their confidence. They may also prefer these treatments because they are less expensive than other cosmetic procedures, such as veneers.

However, treatment success is different for every patient. This is because everyone has different tooth characteristics, including opacity, translucency, gloss, and fluorescence. Some patients also require more treatments to see results, while others require less upkeep.

plaque tartar

Causes of Tooth Discoloration

Surface stains are the most obvious sign of tooth discoloration. Stains are naturally picked up over the course of a person’s life. In particular, the bumps, grooves, and “holes” in teeth pick up the stains. As a result, your teeth may darken, yellow, develop white streaks, or become discolored.

Tooth color is dependant on an individual’s lifestyle, diet, habits, and oral care practices. For example, common causes of tooth discoloration include:

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Everyone has different colored teeth and enamel structure. Some people are also born with thicker teeth or have darker colored enamel.


Some disease treatments can cause tooth discoloration. In particular, chemotherapy and radiation commonly do so.


Some disease treatments can cause tooth discoloration. In particular, chemotherapy and radiation commonly do so.


Many patients who receive whitening treatment are adults (30+). As people age, the outer layer of enamel naturally wears down, resulting in tooth discoloration and yellowing. Younger patients typically see long-term effects from teeth whitening treatments, while older patients do not.

Amalgam Restorations

Amalgam restorations (cavity fillings) can cause black tooth discoloration because they contain sulfide.


Besides tetracycline, antihistamines, antipsychotics, and high blood pressure medications can cause discoloration.

Tobacco Use

Smoking or chewing tobacco causes tooth discoloration over time. So, dentists recommend quitting to ensure your teeth and body remain healthy.

Certain Foods and Drinks

Surface stains are commonly caused by the excessive consumption of coffee, dark teas, soda, and red wine. Even dark-colored fruits, such as blackberries, can cause discoloration.

Pregnancy and Tetracycline

Mothers who take tetracycline (antibiotics for bacterial diseases) while pregnant can cause tooth discoloration in their child.


Excessive fluoride consumption, specifically from tap water that is naturally high in fluoride, can cause tooth discoloration or leave white streaks on teeth.


Preventing Discoloration

Neglecting basic oral care practices, such as brushing, flossing, and rinsing with mouthwash regularly, typically leads to discoloration or yellowing. This is because plaque begins to buildup from coffee, tobacco, and dark foods or liquids. The plaque is also more difficult to remove over time, resulting in calculus buildup, cavities, or tooth decay.

Making lifestyle changes, such as drinking less coffee, quitting smoking, and brushing regularly, can help prevent tooth discoloration.

In particular, whitening treatments are ideal for patients who already have discolored teeth and are looking for a cost-effective fix.

oral cancer

Types of Whitening Treatment

Types of teeth whitening treatments are separated into three categories, including:

Professional Whitening (In-Office Treatment)

Common in-office whitening treatments include 1-hour ZOOM, BOOST, and Kor whitening. These treatments are very effective and provide the quickest results. In addition, they all have a similar active ingredient and may or may not use a light. The treatment takes about 30 minutes and can make the tooth color two-three shades lighter in one visit. In-office whitening can also be done during every routine dental cleaning.

At-Home Whitening Solutions

This type of treatment is more intensive and takes longer than professional whitening treatment. Firstly, a patient visits their dentist and has impressions made of their mouth. Then custom trays are designed to fit the individual’s mouth perfectly. The patient is provided with at least 6 months' worth of trays and whitening gel at a time, depending on how often they use it. Then they can purchase refills of the professional strength gel, using it in their original trays. For patients who are seeking an aggressive teeth whitening experience, this is the ideal option.

Over-The-Counter Whitening Products

These products are the cheapest option. Although, they take much longer to see results than in-office or at-home whitening solutions. Common forms of over-the-counter whitening products include whitening strips or gels, whitening toothpaste, and some mouthwashes. They are completely safe but are not ideal for those who want a quick fix.


Common Questions and Concerns

Is Whitening Safe?

With centuries of research-backed evidence on the treatment, both professional and over-the-counter teeth whitening solutions are completely safe. Although, the key factor in safety is doing it properly and following directions given by a dentist (or the product label for over-the-counter products).

Who Shouldn’t Get Whitening Treatments?

Even though whitening is safe, it is not recommended for everyone, including:

  • Small Children - children who still have primary (baby) teeth should not receive whitening treatment because their gums, teeth, and jaws are still developing.
  • Pregnant Women and Nursing Mothers - the chemicals from whitening treatments can be passed along to developing babies.
  • Previous Restorative Treatment - dental restorative materials such as veneers, crowns, and fillings will not whiten because they are made of composite, porcelain, or metal. In other words, only the natural tooth structure will change color. If a patient has dental restorations, they can still use whitening products on their surrounding natural teeth. Professional whitening treatments are typically recommended for these patients, rather than over-the-counter solutions.
What are the Side Effects?

Tooth sensitivity is the most common side effect of whitening treatment. However, the sensitivity will only subside after a patient stops treatment. With professional treatments, on the other hand, the dentist can take steps to avoid and/or treat any sensitivity that arises.

Gum irritation can occur when the whitening gel comes into contact with the gums. Although, this typically disappears within 24-48 hours. It will continue occurring if the gel touches the gums.

How Long Does Whitening Last?

How long whitening treatments last depends on your lifestyle and preference. For example, your diet, habits, and the type of treatment chosen all impact effectiveness. Additionally, for at-home treatments, it is recommended to get a booster treatment every six months. For more invasive professional treatments, such as the Kor whitening system, you typically won’t need another treatment for at least a year or longer.

Treatment Cost & Insurance

The cost of teeth whitening treatment depends on the chosen type. However, since teeth whitening is cosmetic in nature, it is not covered by insurance.

Professional Whitening
$500-$1400 (per treatment)
At-Home Whitening
$250-500 (reusable tray) $15 (gel)
Over-the-counter Whitening
Under $100

Read our reviews of the top whitening kits of 2020


Perdigão Jorge. Tooth Whitening: an Evidence-Based Perspective. Springer, 2016.
“Whitening: 5 Things to Know About Getting a Brighter Smile.” Mouth Healthy TM, https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/w/whitening.
Updated on: June 29, 2020
Alyssa Hill
Medically Reviewed: August 26, 2019
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Lara Coseo