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Do Over-the-Counter Teeth Whiteners Work?

While professional teeth whitening is always the best, most reliable choice, we understand that many people want to purchase something over-the-counter.  Whatever the reason, you can achieve successful teeth whitening results with some over-the-counter products.

With the wide range of over-the-counter products advertised as teeth whiteners, it can be difficult for consumers to know which to choose and whether it will work. This blog will highlight some important whitening concepts to understand in order to choose the best over-the-counter teeth whitening product.

Check the Active Ingredient.

For true teeth whitening (as opposed to surface polishing, which we will discuss later), the active ingredient in the product must be a chemical in the peroxide family.  You may see hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.  When a product specifically advertises being “peroxide-free”, that means it will not penetrate enamel to break down dark-colored compounds.  Only peroxides can do that.

Sometimes, the ingredients list also shows the percentage of the active ingredient (i.e. hydrogen peroxide 10%).  The higher the percentage, the more effective it will be at whitening.  However, the higher the percentage, the higher the risk for side effects like sensitive teeth and gum irritations.

The Problem with Peroxide-Free Products

Many over-the-counter or online products claim to be “safer” because they are peroxide-free.  There are two problems with this assertion.  While these products are certainly correct that they are safe, they imply that peroxide is unsafe.  Peroxide chemicals for teeth whitening, when used according to the instructions, are not dangerous in any way.  The second problem is that they claim to whiten teeth without peroxide.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to penetrate enamel and break down dark-colored pigments in the dentin without a peroxide chemical.  So these ingredients are safe, and they will not whiten teeth.

Consider the Application Method.

It is also important to consider the method of application.  How does this whitening product apply the active ingredient to the teeth?  In general, these chemicals need to stay in contact with enamel for a minimum of 15 minutes to make a difference in the shade of your teeth.  Anything that you simply swish for one minute and spit will not whiten your teeth.  Because there is such a wide variety of whitening products on the market, we will break them down into the different methods of application to explain how they will or will not work.

Whitening Gels in Generic Trays

A very common method of whitening the teeth is using a whitening gel (these usually do have a peroxide chemical) in a generic moldable tray.  These trays may be the kind that you heat in warm water to mold them to the shape of your dental arches.

This type of application can work well. There are a few minor problems with it.  First of all, the lack of a tight fit against the teeth may allow you to use an excessive amount of gel, effectively wasting it by allowing it to pool in the tray instead of remaining in contact with the teeth.  Also, without fitting against the teeth snugly, the gel may seep out onto the gum tissues, causing irritation or pain.

Whitening Pens

A relatively new trend in teeth whitening is the whitening pen.  These small pen-like devices contain a viscous liquid that hardens into a shell after being painted onto the teeth, similar to nail polish.  The theory is that this hard shell will slowly release the whitening chemical into the teeth.  These products claim to work in just minutes, when what they really mean is that it only takes minutes to apply.  The whitening chemical still requires a longer period of time to produce results.

The ease of application and short time required makes this method quite attractive, but unfortunately, studies do not support their effectiveness.  Most people find minimal or no whitening results with this method.

White Strips

Popularized by Crest, white strips are small plastic sticky strips that contain a whitening gel embedded in the strip.  They are simple to apply, they readily adhere to the teeth, and they do contain effective active ingredients.  Many people experience great whitening results with the various types of white strips.

The method of application does keep the peroxide chemical in contact with the teeth for an extended length of time.  The only complaints we hear about strips is that they can slip and slide around on the teeth or irritate the gums if applied incorrectly.

Whitening Toothpaste

Whitening toothpaste is not truly a whitening product.  Instead, it contains tiny abrasive particles aimed at polishing away superficial exterior stains that collect on enamel.  Even a whitening toothpaste that does contain peroxide cannot effectively whiten due to the length of time toothpaste typically stays on the teeth.

While whitening toothpaste will not change the underlying color of your teeth, it is a wonderful option to remove stains and maintain a white smile if you consistently expose your teeth to dark pigments in coffee, tea, red wine, and tobacco.

Whitening Mouthwash

Like whitening toothpaste, whitening mouthwash cannot penetrate the enamel, even if it does contain peroxide, because of the length of time required to whiten teeth.  Even if you could swish for 15 minutes, you would not want to due to hydrogen peroxide’s potential for irritating the soft tissues inside the mouth.  Peroxide chemicals need to touch enamel and nothing else for effective and safe teeth whitening.

Whitening mouthwash is even less effective than whitening toothpaste because it does not polish the outer surface.

More Questions about Over-the-Counter Teeth Whitening Products?

Call Designer Smiles today to set up a consultation with Dr. Ann and Dr. Lauren.  They can answer any questions you have about teeth whitening.  If you have a specific product in mind, bring it or a clear photo of the packaging with you.  There are so many products available today that it is impossible for us to know every one of them.  We can, however, make important deductions from the packaging, and let you know if the product will produce effective whitening results.