Harvard Women's Health Watch

Time for tooth whitening?

The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the teeth may also be the first thing others notice.

Maybe it was your 35th high school reunion photograph — or perhaps an innocent remark by a grandchild — but now you're self-conscious about your dingy teeth, and you're thinking about whitening them. Dentists can perform or supervise various whitening procedures, and over-the-counter whitening products are available at drugstores and supermarkets. What's best for you depends on several things, including the type of discoloration and the amount of time and money you're willing to spend. There are two main types of whitening products. Some, chiefly whitening toothpastes, remove surface stains by polishing with chemical agents or mild abrasives. These don't alter the tooth's natural color and can only lighten its appearance slightly. The other type of product contains a peroxide bleaching agent (carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide) that changes the color of the tooth and can lighten it by several shades. Our focus here is on these products.

Getting help from a dentist

The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that you consult your dentist before using any bleaching product, even an over-the-counter one. Bleaching can be uncomfortable for people with sensitive teeth or gum recession. Also, most products will bleach only natural tooth enamel, so if you have tooth-colored fillings, crowns, veneers, or partial dentures, bleaching may yield uneven results.

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