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Teeth Whitening 301: Professional, DIY, and DIWHY

Everyone has a “natural remedy” for stained teeth. This article breaks down what works, what doesn’t, and what’s just dumb.

People care about how their teeth look, but they don’t always know how to keep them bright. Good looking teeth are an important part of self image, and tooth brightness is a notable contributor. This has led to the development of countless professional and at-home tooth brightening procedures. Some are good, some are bad, and some are pretty dangerous! If you’re looking to upgrade your smile, it’s important to understand how tooth brightening procedures work and how bright is bright enough.

How Food Stains Your Teeth

Contrary to popular belief, your teeth aren’t smooth. At least, they aren’t smooth enough to avoid stains. Dental stains from foods like coffee and tea take hold (and are hard to remove) because the pigment particles that form the stain are small enough that they adhere to minuscule ridges and crevices on your teeth.

On their own, these pigments wouldn’t be that hard to deal with; they get stuck in the pits and crevices, but isn’t that what a toothbrush is for? Most of the foods that cause dental stains, however, aren’t just strongly pigmented. They’re also fairly acid.

When you combine tiny particles that get stuck in the surface of your enamel with acidic things like pop and coffee, what you have is a recipe for stains. The acid softens your enamel, the pigments get stuck, and when you go to brush your teeth, those pigments are too firmly affixed to your rehardened enamel for your toothbrush to do much good.

The Clinical Solution

Since dental stains are affixed through a combination of pigmentation and acidification, it makes sense that the best way to remove them is to essentially reverse the process. Almost all tooth whitening procedures use some kind of peroxide compound to loosen the stains, and a gentle cleaning procedure to wash them away. The acidity of the peroxide is secondary to its natural ability to penetrate enamel, allowing it to clean the stains without overtly impacting the enamel.

The difference between the various over-the-counter procedures and what your dentist can do is fairly simple: Your dentist has access to stronger chemicals and better applicators, and they’ve been trained to do it the right way. Tooth whitening  compounds, when used incorrectly, can make your teeth “too white” or even stain them a different color, and some over-eager users have left them on long enough to damage the mucus membranes in their mouths.

What the dentist offers, then, is consistency. Everything they use is well regulated and tested (where over-the-counter products often try to cut corners by using similar compounds that haven’t been studied as closely), and they have the best tools for applying it consistently. They won’t leave it on too long, either.

The DIY Solutions

Tooth whitening isn’t a modern practice; people have been trying it for years, and as a result you can find countless at-home remedies online. They follow the same model as professional treatments, using an acidic compound and some kind of home-made applicator, but they vary wildly in terms of concentration and safety.

The most common DIY solution is to apply a paste of baking soda and peroxide with a toothbrush. This route has a few downsides, of course, as the abrasiveness of baking soda can cause problems. Softening your enamel and then scrubbing it with an abrasive compound is an easy way to end up with unbalanced tooth wear, which defeats the purpose of trying to improve your smile.

Other solutions involve using strawberry paste, banana peels, or vinegar in similar ways. They all have varying levels of acidity, and therefore varying levels of negative side effects, so it’s hard to predict how safe they are. Plus, since they often lack the primary compounds that are used by professionals, they often do nothing at all.

The DIWHY Solutions

Of course, no matter how ineffective an at-home solution might be, some people decide to experiment instead of deferring to the professionals. Since safety limits the efficacy of many over-the-counter and DIY teeth whitening solutions, some people have tried to take matters into their own hands. The wrong way.

Any DIY method that promises a bright smile, or that claims to work where everything else doesn’t, because it uses a stronger compound is probably a bad idea. The compounds used by dentists have strictly controlled acidity levels for some very important reasons, and even then their usage is tightly monitored. You don’t want to play around with them.

There have even been cases of unlicensed businesses offering teeth whitening services that have resulted in hospitalizations and severe injuries. Promising “instantly whiter teeth,” these businesses use a cocktail of unregulated chemicals and even industrial cleaners to unsuspecting customers. The results aren’t pretty.

Talk to Dr. Halsema

If you want to explore your teeth whitening options, talk to Dr. Halsema. There are many over-the-counter solutions available, and countless DIY ones that don’t actually work, but it’s important to talk to the professionals. Some teeth, due to damage or internal staining, can’t be brightened, and it’s important to start the process with realistic expectations.