A brighter smile is one of the most common requests when it comes to oral care. Products billed as “teeth whitening” and sometimes as “teeth bleaching” promise whiter and more brilliant teeth. What exactly is the difference between teeth whitening vs. bleaching? Is there one? And if they aren’t the same, which one is best to use?
Differences Between Whitening and Bleaching
First of all, the word bleaching is a bit misleading. Many people think of chlorine bleach, which should never, ever, be in someone’s mouth! The term “teeth bleaching” stems from the fact that teeth bleaching products usually contain hydrogen peroxide, which is also an ingredient in non-chlorine bleach. But make no mistake, dental products and bleach are not the same.
Whitening teeth is the goal of both whitening and bleaching. So what are the differences?
When it comes to the practice of making teeth whiter, the words whitening and bleaching are often used interchangeably. Even the American Dental Association does not distinguish between them in its documents. Defining the differences between them is more about how the terms are used in dental practices and product marketing than their actual definitions.
Among dentists and in product descriptions, teeth whitening is typically the practice of removing surface stains to restore teeth to their natural shade. Tooth bleaching goes a step beyond by using chemical agents to lighten the color of the tooth enamel, sometimes beyond teeth’s natural color.
Teeth Whitening and Bleaching Products
Products that will lighten teeth range from toothpaste and rinses that can be bought over-the-counter, to chemical and laser treatments done at the dentist’s office. Store-bought items fall into the category of teeth whitening. Many of them will clean off the surface stains caused by coffee, red wine, and tobacco that can make teeth dull and discolored. These products are inexpensive and safe. Their effectiveness, however, will depend on the type and severity of the stains.
Teeth-whitening strips are an over-the-counter option that costs a bit more but can work well. These thin plastic strips are coated on one side with a hydrogen peroxide solution. Hydrogen peroxide is sometimes included in toothpaste too but in much smaller amounts. In larger amounts, it is the bleaching agent used in dentist applied products. The use of these stronger chemicals makes whitening strips lean more toward bleaching rather than simply whitening.
Dentists use products to whiten teeth that contain much stronger chemical agents than what can be bought at the drugstore. The methods they use are more likely to be called “bleaching.” Bleaching treatments are administered at the dentist’s office, usually in a series of visits. In some cases, a dentist will prescribe at-home treatments that the patient can do themselves. Because these methods use a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide, they often have better results than other options.
Recently, professional-strength bleaching products have sprung up in non-dental settings. Much like other non-surgical cosmetic treatments (such as Botox or Juvederm), teeth bleaching is being offered in salons, spas, mall kiosks, and even on cruise ships. It is important to research any provider who is not a licensed dental professional and proceed with caution.
Getting to the Bottom of Tooth Stains
The cause of a patient’s tooth stains will sometimes determine whether a whitening product is enough, or if bleaching might do a better job at cleaning the teeth. Tooth stains can come from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) sources. Extrinsic tooth stains are the ones that coffee drinkers and smokers notice. Intrinsic stains are caused by things outside a person’s control, like heredity, aging, or certain medical conditions.
Extrinsic stains are the easiest to remove. When stains aren’t bad, whitening toothpaste may be all that’s needed to see results. Often, a trip to the dentist for a professional cleaning can make a big difference. Dental hygienists use polishing tools and abrasive pastes that can get rid of a lot of stains.
Intrinsic stains are tougher to tackle, so a professional product might be needed to see results. Dentists use hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide at a much higher concentration than what is available commercially. They may also use ultraviolet light or lasers to amplify the chemical’s strength for more dramatic results.
Some stains may not go away no matter what method or product is used. Medications such as tetracycline will permanently discolor teeth. It should also be noted that whitening or bleaching can change the shade of natural teeth, but will not have any effect on tooth-colored dental work.
Whitening and Bleaching Safety
Teeth whitening and bleaching products are safe when used correctly. Over-the-counter rinses and toothpaste are the safest and can be used by just about anyone. More aggressive products and methods might cause problems for some individuals. As with any treatment involving chemicals, it’s best to be aware of possible side effects and health concerns.
Some people experience tooth sensitivity or gum irritation after whitening and bleaching their teeth. This could be a result of chemical solutions that are too strong or treatments that are too frequent. It could also mean that the patient might simply have a low tolerance for that particular product. Discomfort for these reasons is usually short-lived and can be treated with anti-inflammatory medication.
Existing cavities or eroded tooth enamel could result in more serious side effects. Because whitening agents penetrate teeth, they can result in extreme pain. They can even cause permanent root damage.
Professional Treatments for Whiter Teeth
Although it will cost more, visiting a dentist for teeth whitening or teeth bleaching has some advantages, the most notable being safety.
A dentist will first examine a patient’s teeth to make sure everything is healthy. They will treat things like tooth decay or gingivitis first before even considering teeth bleaching. With a do-it-yourself approach, a patient might see whiter teeth, but the underlying issue will still be there.
As part of their procedures, dentists take extra care to protect the soft tissues of the mouth from the chemicals they use. They also can keep an eye on the teeth to make sure there is no erosion.
A dentist will be able to determine the cause of a patient’s stains and know which treatment option will show the best results. And because they can use stronger concentrations in the office, patients often see faster, more noticeable changes. Once the treatments start, they can gauge the progress and tweak the product strength or appointment frequency to suit the patient’s goals.There is a teeth whitening or teeth bleaching product out there for just about every mouth—whether the teeth need a little brightening or a whole new shade. For people looking for a big change in the color of their teeth in the safest possible way, it’s best to consult a professional. Use our online tool to find a dentist near you.