Tooth whitening risks: Is it bad to get your teeth whitened?

There are many teeth whitening systems and products, including whitening toothpastes, over-the-counter gels, rinses, strips, trays, and whitening products you get from a dentist.

Over time, drinking coffee, red wine, smoking cigarettes, and simply aging can stain our teeth, as can certain medications such as tetracycline. Teeth whitening is ideal for people who have healthy, gums and teeth with no fillings. Individuals with yellow tones to their teeth respond best.

Teeth whitening methods (h2)

The best way to understand the risks of teeth whitening is to know the methods people use to whiten their teeth.

In-office method (h3)

Tooth whitening is defined as any process that will make teeth appear whiter. There are two ways this is commonly done: bleaching and non-bleaching whitening products. Often the terms “bleaching” and “whitening” are used interchangeably, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states the term “bleaching” can only be used when a product contains bleach. A product is considered simply “whitening” when it removes food or debris from the teeth without bleach.

Bleaching products contain peroxide (hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide) and these products remove both surface and deep stains on teeth and can cause teeth to become even lighter than their natural shade. In-office treatments use a higher dosage of either carbamide or hydrogen peroxide than what’s available in most at-home whitening kits. For example, most strips use only about 6 percent hydrogen peroxide. At-home trays use about 22 percent. Professional dental whitening solutions, on the other hand, use 35 percent peroxide, but results from this higher percentage can be further enhanced by other tools such as heat and light. As a result, patients typically spend less time on teeth whitening when they have it done professionally and the final results are much more dramatic than what’s possible at home.

At-Home Teeth Bleaching Options (h3)

There are many choices for bleaching teeth at home, the most common include:

  • Tooth whitening toothpastes. Because they’re mildly abrasive, every toothpaste helps remove stains from teeth. Whitening toothpastes, however, also contain chemicals or polishing agents that help scrub stains from teeth without the aid of a bleaching agent. Tooth-whitening toothpastes are relatively inexpensive and brighten teeth by about one shade. Some whitening toothpastes contain peroxides, but they aren’t left on the teeth long enough to have a whitening benefit.
  • Tray-based tooth bleaching systems. With this teeth whitening option, a mouth guard-like tray is filled with a peroxide-based bleaching gel or paste and placed over the teeth for one to several hours a day for up to four weeks. You can buy tray-based tooth whitening systems over-the-counter or have one custom-fitted by your dentist.
  • Tooth whitening strips and gels. Applied directly to the teeth with a brush or a thin strip, these peroxide-based tooth bleaching products usually need to be applied once or twice a day for 10 to 14 days.

What are the risks tooth whitening (bleaching)? (h2)

Tooth Sensitivity (h3)

You may notice that your teeth are sensitive during the whitening process and for a short period after the procedure. This is due to the exposure of the dentin layer during the whitening process.2

If you have tooth sensitivity before you decide to whiten, consult your dentist beforehand for advice on what teeth whitening options are suitable for your situation.

Your dentist can also give you a list of brands of whitening products that may help alleviate the increased level of sensitivity during the whitening process.

If you already have sensitive teeth or experience pain when eating certain foods or drinks, you may feel discomfort or pain when the bleaching solution is applied to the surface of your teeth. Make sure to inform your dentist of your sensitivity issue so that they can recommend products such as special toothpaste to reduce this risk and increase comfort during your procedure.

Gum Irritation (h3)

Hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide are the most common active ingredients for teeth whitening products. Treatments prescribed by your dentist — whether that’s an in-office procedure or take-home whitening trays — contain higher levels of these bleaching agents. If the bleach were to touch your gums, it could cause irritation. However, your dentist takes extra precautions to protect your gum tissue. During in-office procedures, a protective gel will be used to shield your gums from the bleaching agent. Similarly, at-home trays are customized to fit your teeth, so as little whitening gel touches your gums as possible. If you still experience any issues, the irritation should heal on its own.

Undesirable Results (h3)

Depending on the initial shade of your teeth, the results achieved after whitening your teeth may not be what you were hoping for. If you have heavy staining or internal tooth discoloration, you may not notice a change in the shade of your teeth after whitening.

Is teeth whitening safe? (h2)

Generally Yes. Simply handle your whitening protocol like any medical treatment, listen to your dentist, follow instructions, and watch for unwanted side effects. Then, you can safely and effectively whiten your teeth and brighten your smile.