Tooth whitening was discovered by accident by dentists who traditionally use peroxide in the mouth after dental surgery. They noticed the effects of peroxide on tooth discoloration due to coffee, tea, colas, smoking, and other substances. Whitening has now become a common process.
There are two main kinds of tooth whitening treatments, those carried out in a dentist's office and those done at home. The procedure in the dentist's office, with laser activation, can take a little over an hour; the procedure at home can take days or weeks.
Home treatments include those dispensed by dentists and those bought over-the-counter. To get to the root of the differences, you must first look at who regulates or sets guidelines for tooth whiteners. Since they are not considered as drugs by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the FDA does not regulate them.
In place of regulation, the American Dental Association (ADA) has set minimal guidelines for safety and effectiveness. The only products to have received the ADA Seal of Acceptance are tray-based products dispensed by dentists. The active ingredient in these ADA-accepted products is carbamide peroxide at 10% concentration. The active ingredient found in many over-the-counter products is hydrogen peroxide.
Your dentist should be your first advisor on which over-the-counter product is best for you, based on the nature of your tooth discoloration and your dental history, as well as safety. You can also ask your dentist or do your own research online as to which manufacturers have a reputation for making quality products, and which manufacturers conduct their own research.
As a general rule, there has been extensive testing of carbamide peroxide-based whiteners, but very little of hydrogen peroxide, something to be taken into consideration when choosing.
Another consideration is the condition of your teeth. It is safe to whiten your teeth yourself without consulting a dentist if your teeth are healthy, but if you have dentures, fillings, capped teeth or teeth blackened by fillings or decay, ask your dentist what would be right for you.
Whitening toothpastes might be safer, as they gently whiten with mild abrasion and do not necessarily contain peroxide. They typically can leave your teeth one shade lighter with continued use. On the other end of the spectrum, dentist-applied light activated whitening can lighten teeth by up to 8 shades.
Whitening gels and strips use peroxide in lower concentrations than if administered by your dentist. They can lighten teeth by several shades in a few days to two weeks, and the effects can last up to 4 months.
Tray bleaching at home is done typically for 1-2 hours per day, or overnight, for up to 4 weeks for maximum results. This method is much cheaper than having your dentist do the job.
Possible side effects of tooth whitening include cold or heat sensitivity, or gum irritation. If you use over-the-counter products at home and develop sensitivity in your mouth tissues, discontinue use and consult with your dentist. Your dentist can apply whitener and keep it from contacting your gums, plus he can control the amount and maximize contact with your teeth for optimal whitening and minimal irritation.
Whether you choose to whiten your teeth with your dentist's help or on your own, educating yourself will give you the best chances of achieving that dazzling white smile.