According to the global market and consumer data analysts at Statista, 40.5 million Americans used teeth whitening products in 2018. The quest for a brighter smile has been a multi-billion dollar industry for some time. If you’re considering having your teeth whitened, you probably have some questions. One of the most common questions that dentists get is “does teeth whitening damage teeth?
Overall, teeth whitening is a safe and effective way to remove stains from teeth. When used correctly, it will not ruin tooth enamel. But it can have some side effects. It also doesn’t work in every case, and can be expensive. Patients need to know the risks and drawbacks and decided for themselves if teeth whitening, especially professional teeth whitening, is right for them.
Choosing a Teeth Whitening Method
Patients can opt to see a dentist for teeth whitening, or go it alone with an over-the-counter product. Even if you decide to try one of the many drugstore products on the market (toothpaste, rinses, and whitening strips,) it is safest to visit a dentist first.
Teeth whitening should only be done on healthy teeth. A dental exam and professional cleaning are recommended before starting any treatment. The dentist will make sure a patient doesn’t have any underlying issues that could affect the results or safety of whitening. And sometimes, with mild staining, a professional cleaning might get impressive brightening results on its own.
Choosing to have your dentist do the whitening for you will most likely be more expensive, but can offer some advantages. The whitening products used by professionals are stronger so you may see better and faster results. They can also monitor the process to make sure it is as safe as possible for your teeth and gums.
The Science Behind Teeth Whitening
It’s probably no surprise that tooth enamel is the hardest tissue in the human body. What might surprise you is that it is porous. It has microscopic hollow rods or tubes that reach down to the layer below, called the dentin. Stain-causing materials can seep into the tooth enamel through these tubes. It’s actually dentin that absorbs the majority of the stain.
Teeth whitening bleaching agents use hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. These can be applied in the form of a toothpaste, rinse, gel, or on a plastic whitening strip. The solution penetrates the teeth causing a chemical reaction called oxidation that dissolves stains.
Why Results Vary
There are two types of tooth stains: extrinsic and intrinsic. Intrinsic stains are caused by internal factors like heredity, aging, and some health issues. Extrinsic stains are the ones that come from smoking, drinking coffee or red wine—in other words, they come from outside the body.
Whether stains are intrinsic or extrinsic has no relationship to the safety teeth whitening products. They are safe for both types of stains. However, both store-bought and professional whitening products work better to remove extrinsic stains than intrinsic stains. Unfortunately, some intrinsic stains can not be removed.
Reasons for Caution With Teeth Whitening
Although teeth whitening doesn’t damage teeth, there are some cases when patients should proceed with caution. Keep in mind these potential side effects:
Tooth Sensitivity from Teeth Whitening
Some patients experience tooth sensitivity after a teeth whitening treatment. This can be the result of the peroxide solution penetrating the tooth and irritating the tooth pulp. The higher the concentration of the chemical solution, the more likely it is to cause sensitivity. Luckily, the sensitivity is usually mild and goes away quickly. Fluoride is typically combined with whitening agents to combat sensitivity and to counteract the potential of enamel erosion.
There are some things a patient can do to avoid tooth sensitivity. Anti-inflammatory medications taken before whitening may help. They should also avoid eating and drinking right after treatment.
If a patient already has dental sensitivity, teeth whitening can make it worse. A dentist will be able to advise them of what type of teeth whitening is best, or if it is best to avoid it completely.
Soft Tissue Irritation
The chemicals used for whitening teeth can irritate the gums and surrounding mouth tissue. When a dentist administers teeth whitening, they first apply a protective substance to the gums to create a barrier and avoid contact with the bleaching agent.
When soft tissues are exposed too long to bleaching products, or if the solution is too strong, the patient can experience a chemical burn. This might show up as white blotches on the gum tissue immediately after treatment. There may be inflammation and a burning sensation and in the worst cases pain and bleeding.
Like tooth sensitivity, gum irritation usually goes away after a short time. It is something to be on the lookout for if a patient has a history of gingivitis or gum issues.
Aggravating Existing Conditions
While teeth whitening itself doesn’t damage tooth enamel, it can cause problems if the enamel is already weak. When enamel has erosion or if cavities exist, getting whitening treatments is not a good idea.
Whitening agents work by penetrating teeth, so if there are holes formed by cavities, the chemicals will get inside. Depending on how deep the cavity is, this can cause extreme pain. It can also damage, or in some cases even kill the root.
This is why it is so important to have a complete dental exam before starting any whitening process. Any cavities should be fixed and filled first to avoid pain and further damage.
Another thing to note about fillings: Fillings, crowns, and other dental restorations will not be affected by bleaching like teeth are. If a filling is done to match the color of the rest of the teeth before whitening, it may stand out quite a bit afterward. If you’re having dental work done and intend to whiten your teeth, a dentist can help you choose the best approach to get a uniform smile.
Best Practices for Teeth Whitening
Teeth whitening is a safe and effective way to get a brighter smile. But it’s important to understand how it works and what its risks are. There are some things you can do to get the most out of teeth whitening and make sure it doesn’t damage your teeth:
Realistic Expectations: Remember that natural teeth come in all shades and aren’t always a brilliant shade of white, to begin with. Understand that teeth whitening results vary.
Follow Directions: If you’re using a do-it-yourself method, be sure to follow the directions carefully, especially when it comes to instructions about protecting your teeth and gums.
Avoid Overuse: Many problems result when people become impatient for results and use the products too often or for too long. Instead of making teeth whiter, overuse of these products can cause them to turn grey or translucent.
Personal Habits: Sometimes, things that can be controlled are causing tooth stains. Avoiding tobacco, coffee, tea, or wine can prevent stains from developing, or help a teeth whitening last longer.
Consider a Professional: Talk to your dentist about the whitening programs they offer. The stronger products they use may give faster results. And you will have the peace of mind that they are following the best safety protocols. You can find someone who offers teeth whitening using our online search tool.