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Teeth whitening

Teeth whitening is a way of lightening the colour of your natural teeth and, in doing so, making your smile more attractive. You may want your teeth whitened because they have lost their brightness because of smoking, stains from food and drink, or getting older, for example.

With teeth whitening there’s no need to remove the hard coating (enamel) that protects your teeth, as whitening uses bleaching methods. You may start to see the results after a few weeks.

In general, you need to 18 years old to have teeth whitening, although this depends on your individual circumstances. And only dental professionals registered with the General Dental Council can carry out teeth whitening. These include professional dentists and dental hygienists, therapists and technicians.

You should discuss your teeth whitening treatment with your dentist. It might be different from what we’ve described here, as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

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  • Causes of tooth discolouration Why do teeth lose their brightness?

    Several factors can cause your teeth to lose their natural brightness over time. These include:

    • natural changes in the colour of your dentine (the inner part of your teeth) as you get older
    • a diet rich in food and drink with strong colourings, such as carrots, oranges, chocolate, tea, coffee and wine
    • smoking, which can make your teeth appear yellow
    • tartar (plaque that builds up and hardens on your teeth, usually as a result of poor tooth-brushing habits)
    • tooth fillings used for root canal treatments
    • medicines such as antibiotics when your teeth are developing

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  • Who does teeth whitening? Who does teeth whitening?

    Only qualified dentists, or other dental professionals registered with the General Dental Council, can carry out teeth whitening effectively and safely. It’s illegal for anyone else such as a beautician or hairdresser to offer the procedure. This is the case even if they have attended a teeth whitening training course, or state that they have a valid insurance. If you had your teeth whitened by someone who was not a qualified dentist, you can contact the General Dental Council (www.gdc-uk.org) for advice.

    You can buy teeth whitening products over the counter in most pharmacies in the UK, as well as online. They include home tray kits and whitening strips. However, these products are generally not recommended. This is because over-the-counter whitening kits don’t always work. In addition, the bleaching products they contain may not be the best for your needs and could damage your teeth and mouth.

    If you're thinking about using a home method of teeth whitening, you may want to speak with your dentist first - he or she may be able to recommend which one to use. If you decide to use a home method of teeth whitening, make sure you read the instructions carefully. You will find important information, such as when you can eat after the bleaching. Follow all the instructions exactly as described.

  • What teeth whitening treatment involves What teeth whitening treatment involves

    Teeth whitening products can help lighten teeth that have lost their brightness. Bleaching is the most common way to whiten your teeth. Products usually contain either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. When these chemicals break down, they release oxygen. This gets into the hard outer surface of your teeth (the enamel) and whitens them. The time the whitening effects last is different for everyone. It usually ranges from a few months to three years. See our FAQs for more information about how long results last.

    Bleaching can be external or internal.

    External bleaching

    If you have external bleaching, your dentist will protect your gums with a shield. He or she will then use custom-made mouth trays, to apply a whitening product to your teeth.

    Your dentist will give you the bleaching product, and instructions on how to use it, so you can continue whitening your teeth at home. How often you need to do this, and for how long will depend on the bleaching product. It can vary from 30 minutes to eight hours at a time. Depending on which product you’re using, you may start to see results after one to four weeks.

    Your dentist may offer you a type of external bleaching called laser, or power, bleaching. This involves applying the bleaching product on your teeth, and then shining a laser (a very bright light) onto them. There are claims that the laser speeds up the whitening process by reacting with the bleaching product, but research shows there’s very little scientific proof that this is the case.

    Internal bleaching

    Internal bleaching can help lighten the colour of teeth that have darkened as a result of a root canal treatment. This is when the blood vessels and nerves inside your tooth are replaced with a filling.

    If you have internal bleaching, your dentist will drill a hole in your tooth and will put the bleaching product into it. This is usually a re-opening of the hole that was previously made for your root treatment. Your dentist will seal the hole with a temporary filling, leaving the bleaching product inside your tooth.

    You will need to go back to your dentist after three to seven days to have the temporary filling and bleaching product changed. At each visit, your dentist will also check whether the treatment is working. It may take several visits before the treatment is complete. Satisfactory results can be achieved after two to four visits. At this point, the hole is closed permanently with a tooth-coloured filling.

    For both external and internal bleaching, your dentist will use whitening products that contain specific amounts of hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. These are the chemicals that make your teeth whiter. For example, whitening products cannot contain more than six per cent hydrogen peroxide. This is to ensure that the treatment is safe.

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  • Preparation Preparing for teeth whitening

    You should always have a full assessment by your dentist, before having your teeth whitened. This is to make sure that you don’t have problems such as tooth decay or inflamed gums.

    Your dentist will show you on a chart what shade of white your teeth will be by the end of the treatment. And he or she will give you an idea of how long it will take to achieve the desired results.

    You will have impressions taken of your upper and lower teeth. Your dentist will use them to make plastic trays that fit your mouth. These will be used during the treatment to apply the bleaching product to your teeth.

  • Alternatives What are the alternatives to teeth whitening?

    The bleaching products used for teeth whitening cannot lighten the colour of false tooth materials like dentures, crowns or bridges. They work only on natural teeth. So, depending on your situation, you may have to consider the following alternatives.

    • Veneers. These are thin layers of porcelain or other material, which are attached to the front of your teeth. While they can improve tooth colour, they usually involve altering your teeth. For example, your dentist may need to remove some of the enamel that naturally protects teeth. 
    • Crowns. A crown is like a ‘cap’ that is placed over a natural tooth, after this has been reduced in size. It’s usually made of porcelain, and can be used for improving the colour of individual teeth if, for example, they have fillings that have become dark. 

    Additionally, there are things you can do, which may help improve the appearance of your teeth. These include:

    • brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste at least two times a day, and always before going to bed flossing your teeth regularly 
    • stopping smoking cutting down on food and drink that can stain your teeth, such as carrots, oranges, chocolate, tea, coffee and red wine 
    • brushing your teeth immediately after having food or drink that can cause stains 
    • using a whitening toothpastes – these can’t make your teeth whiter, but can help remove some of the stains 
    • visiting your dentist regularly – he or she can scale and polish your teeth to remove any tartar that has built up

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  • After care Taking care of your teeth after treatment

    It’s important that you have realistic expectations of how much your teeth can be whitened with bleaching methods. You may want to talk with your dentist about this, before you begin the treatment.

    Also, the time that the whitening effect lasts varies from person to person. You may not need to re-whiten your teeth for up to three years. Much depends on how well you look after your new smile.

    Here are some tips.

    • If you are a smoker, try to stop smoking. 
    • Brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. 
    • Floss your teeth regularly. 
    • Limit your intake of food and drink that can stain your teeth, such as chocolate, oranges, tea and coffee. If you do have food and drink that can cause stains, brush your teeth afterwards. 
    • Have regular check-ups with your dentist.

    See also our FAQs for ways to look after your teeth once they have been whitened.

  • Side-effects and complications Side-effects and complications of teeth whitening

    Bleaching products that are available on the internet may damage your teeth, gums or lips, or may not work well. But, if done by a qualified dental professional, registered with the General Dental Council, teeth whitening is generally safe. However, as with every procedure, there are some risks to consider. Your dentist will discuss these risks with you, before the treatment.

    There is a small chance of your teeth becoming more sensitive and your gums feeling sore, after bleaching. These effects usually go away after a few days. There is also the possibility of long-lasting, but rare, damage to teeth and gums. And, if you are pregnant, you may want to consider avoiding the treatment, because the effects of the whitening products on your baby are unknown.

    Side-effects

    Side-effects are the unwanted, but mostly temporary, effects you may get after a treatment. After having your teeth whitened, you may have:

    • an increased sensitivity of your teeth to hot and cold 
    • a sore throat 
    • tender gums 
    • white patches on your gums

    These side-effects should disappear after a few days. Contact your dentist if they don’t.

    Complications

    Alongside temporary effects, teeth whitening can have long-lasting effects, or complications. These include serious damage to teeth and gums caused by the chemicals in the bleaching products.

    Although complications are rare in teeth whitening, it’s important to discuss them with your dentist, before the treatment.

  • FAQ...How should I look after my teeth to make sure they stay white? FAQ...How should I look after my teeth to make sure they stay white?

    Answer

    To help your teeth stay as white as possible, try to limit the amount of food and drink that could stain them. Also, brush them at least twice a day, and visit your dentist regularly. And, if you smoke, try to stop.

    Explanation

    Bleaching can lighten the colour of your teeth, but cannot stop them from getting stained again. Everyday, your teeth are at risk of staining because of your diet, smoking, and other factors. So, it’s really important that you take good care of your new smile.

    There are a number of ways you can help your teeth stay white.

    • If you smoke, try to stop. 
    • Brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. 
    • Floss your teeth regularly. 
    • Try to reduce your intake of food and drink that can stain your teeth, such as chocolate, oranges, tea and coffee. If you do have these, make sure you brush your teeth afterwards. 
    • Visit your dentist regularly, so that he or she can spot and treat any problems early on.
  • FAQ...How much does teeth whitening cost? FAQ...How much does teeth whitening cost?

    Answer

    The price of teeth whitening will depend on your dentist and where you live, as prices vary across different regions.

    Explanation

    Ask your dentist for a written estimate of how much teeth whitening will cost before you start your treatment. Laser, or power, whitening, it may be more expensive than the standard method. This is because the treatment involves the use of a laser to enhance the whitening, which is thought to produce the desired results more quickly. However, there is little scientific proof that this is the case.

  • FAQ...How long will the effects of teeth whitening last? FAQ...How long will the effects of teeth whitening last?

    Answer

    The whitening effects can last from a few months for up to three years. This varies from person to person, and partly depends on how well you look after your teeth and on the type of treatment.

    Explanation

    Your eating, drinking, smoking and tooth-brushing habits can all affect how long the whitening treatment lasts. For example, the effects won’t last long if you smoke or have lots of food and drink that can stain your teeth, such as red wine or coffee. If you smoke, stopping may help prevent staining and keep your teeth as white as possible.

    Also consider that different methods of teeth whitening can lead to different results. It's important to discuss the options with your dentist before you make a decision. He or she will be able to advise you on how long the effects are likely to last for each type of treatment.

  • How to brush your teeth How to brush your teeth

    How to brush your teeth
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    How to brush your teeth
    Good oral hygiene helps prevent tooth decay and gum disease
  • How to floss your teeth How to floss your teeth

    How to floss your teeth
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    Flossing your teeth
    Flossing reaches the areas your toothbrush can't
  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Sources

    • Tooth whitening. British Dental Health Foundation. www.dentalhealth.org, accessed 15 May 2015
    • Teeth whitening. British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. www.bacd.com, accessed 15 May 2015
    • Tooth discoloration. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published 21 June 2013
    • Teeth whitening. British Dental Association. www.bda.org, accessed 15 May 2015
    • Whitening or bleaching. British Dental Association Smile. www.bdasmile.org, accessed 15 May 2015
    • Plotino G, Buono L, Grande NM, et al. Nonvital tooth bleaching: a review of the literature and clinical procedures. JOE 2008; 34(4):394–407. doi:10.1016/j.joen.2007.12.020
    • Caries. The Merck Manuals. www.merckmanuals.com, published 15 May 2015
    • Tooth whitening. Dental Protection. www.dentalprotection.org, accessed 16 May 2015
    • Considering tooth whitening? What you need to know before committing to treatment. General Dental Council. www.gdc-uk.org, accessed 15 May 2015
    • Tooth whitening FAQs. General Dental Council. www.gdc-uk.org, accessed 15 May 2015
    • Cosmetic treatment. British Dental Health Foundation. www.dentalhealth.org, accessed 16 May 2015
    • Veneers. British Dental Health Foundation. www.dentalhealth.org, accessed 16 May 2015
    • Restorative and cosmetic dental treatments. British Academy of Restorative Dentistry. www.bard.uk.com, accessed 15 May 2015
    • Crowns. British Dental Health Foundation. www.dentalhealth.org, accessed 16 May 2015
    • Patients. British Academy of Restorative Dentistry. www.bard.uk.com, accessed 16 May 2015
    • Tooth whitening/bleaching: treatment considerations for dentists and their patients. American Dental Association, 2009. www.ada.org
    • Statement on the safety and effectiveness of tooth whitening products. American Dental Association. www.ada.org, published April 2012
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