A Dentist’s Guide to Whiter Teeth

It turns out, whitening toothpaste doesn’t necessarily whiten your teeth. Booo!

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First, something to consider: White teeth aren’t necessarily healthy teeth. The British, for example, who are well-known for their popcorn mouths, generally have healthier teeth than Americans, who are obsessed with blinding white smiles.

Still, there’s normally no harm in whitening your teeth for vanity’s sake, so we spoke with Dr. Matt Messina of the American Dental Association to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We also discovered which foods, drinks and other stuff are worth avoiding if you want a pearly white smile.

Whitening Options That Will Work

  • Whitening Toothpastes: While whitening toothpastes won’t change the actual color of the teeth — they just contain a larger amount of mild abrasives than regular toothpastes, according to Messina — they will remove surface stains, potentially giving the teeth a whiter appearance. This won’t necessarily turn your teeth white, though, since the natural color of teeth is actually more of a cream color, due to the dentin (calcified tissue within the teeth) beneath the enamel (the outer layer of the teeth). It will only remove brown or yellow stains.
  • Chairside Bleaching: In-office tooth whitening procedures are arguably the quickest (and most effective) way to achieve truly white teeth. “Your dentist will apply either a protective gel or a rubber shield to protect your gums,” Messina explains. “This allows the dentist to treat your teeth with a more powerful whitening agent than you could at home.” The more powerful the whitening agent, the whiter the result. While cheap teeth whitening services are performed at spas around the U.S., Messina emphasizes the importance of visiting a dentist for such procedures — the risks that go with untrained treatments range from chemical burns to getting poisoned from swallowing bleach.
  • Whitening Trays: “Similar to in-office whitening, your dentist will create trays that are molded to your teeth, which contain a carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide gel [both of which whiten teeth],” Messina says. The downside? You’ll have to wear them for up to twelve hours a day until your teeth are to your liking.
  • Whitening Strips: Whitening strips are the most accessible option here, but as Messina explains, “The concentration of the bleaching agent is lower than what your dentist would use in the office.” This means it will take longer for you to see results.

Whitening Options That Won’t Work
“There is no scientific evidence to show that household items like charcoal, baking soda [mixed with] hydrogen peroxide, spices or oils can whiten your teeth,” Messina emphasizes. “Charcoal, for example, could damage the enamel or exposed dentin, which will result in teeth not only being more susceptible to decay but also appearing more yellow permanently.” In other words, talk to a dentist before starting any kind of whitening treatment, especially chewing on charcoal.

Food, Drinks and Other Stuff to Avoid for a Whiter Smile
“Coffee, tea and red wine are some major staining culprits,” Messina says. “They contain intense color pigments called chromogens that attach to the white, outer part of your tooth (enamel).” Tobacco also causes staining, since it contains tar and nicotine.

There you have it: If you want truly white (like, literally white) teeth, your only real options are visiting a dentist for a bleaching treatment or using over-the-counter whitening strips. But remember, white teeth aren’t always healthy teeth. So as long as your dental hygiene is up to par, the actual color of your teeth is secondary.