beauty

The best (and safest) ways to whiten your teeth, according to dentists.

I am embarrassed to confess that at 25 years of age, I’ve been trialing teeth whitening treatments for almost 10 years.

It all started when, at about 15, I got my braces off. I remember staring at the mirror and rather than being ecstatic about having a mouth free from metal, I was disappointed.

My teeth had become discoloured and I hated them.

There started my obsession with teeth whitening.

Only recently I discovered that I am not alone; the ubiquitous image of big, white teeth has established a new and unattainable beauty standard, internalised by men and women alike.

Big white teeth have absolutely saturated our culture. Image via Getty. 

In an ideal world, we'd just accept the colour of our teeth (healthy teeth come in all different shades) and get on with our lives.

But right now I'm going to take the position of a wise mother: you are beautiful just the way you are. But if you're going to do something, then I would prefer you did it safely.

So, with some expert advice from the Chair of the ADA's Oral Health Committee, Dr Peter Alldritt, and Deputy Chair of the Australian Dental Association’s Oral Health Committee, Professor David Manton, here's everything you need to know about whitening your smile.

Watch: Some people, like our publisher Mia Freedman, just get lucky in the white teeth stakes. Dammit. (Post continues below.) 

Natural remedies

Baking soda

Baking soda was one of the first remedies I tried as a teenager. Logically it makes sense, as sodium bicarbonate is abrasive so it works to gently remove any surface stains on the tooth. This should theoretically leave teeth looking whiter.

Directions

  • Mix several teaspoons of baking soda in with about half a teaspoon (or however much it takes to make a paste) of water.
  • Wipe any residual saliva off teeth.
  • Put a liberal amount on a toothbrush and apply.
  • Leave on for about three minutes, and then rinse.

Pros: It won't damage your teeth like many other whitening treatments do. Also it's super cheap.

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Cons: The change won't be drastic. My teenage self expected to look like Hilary Duff overnight, and that is not what happened. Note: I still do not look like Hilary Duff.

Expert opinion: "This is not a reliable source of bleaching," Professor Manton insists. "The best way to avoid stained teeth is not drinking too much of products that cause staining, such as tea or coffee, or red wine. Regular effective brushing with a fluoridated toothpaste and regular cleans by your dentist can also help keep your teeth white."

Dr Alldritt adds, "Never use lemon juice or other acidic 'natural remedies' to whiten your teeth. They can abrade and erode (dissolve) the enamel from your teeth, making them thinner and more yellow."

Experts say this is not a reliable source of bleaching. Image via iStock. 

Activated charcoal

When I first heard about this as a teeth whitening method I thought it was hoax — similar to 'step on your iPhone and it works as a set of scales!' or 'charge your phone by microwaving it!'

But, no. There is 'research'.

It's claimed charcoal pulls toxins from the mouth and removes stains. It has an adhesive quality so binds with surface stains caused by coffee, tea, wine and so on.

Directions

  • Break up one to two tablets of activated charcoal and pour contents into a cup.
  • Add water and mix until it forms a thick paste.
  • Apply paste to teeth.
  • Wait three minutes, and then rinse with water.

Pros: Although I've never personally tried it, testimonials all over the Internet claim charcoal really works. It's cheap and super quick.

Cons: Some dental professionals have expressed concern over the practice, stating that it could be too abrasive for teeth. It is therefore advised you do not brush or scrub the charcoal onto teeth, but rather dab. Also, the whitening power of charcoal stops at superficial stains. If your teeth have always been darker (which could be genetic) you'll need a product that is stronger.

Expert opinion: "There is no good evidence that charcoal is an effective way to whiten one’s teeth – you are better off having a dentist bleach your teeth for you or trying a whitening toothpaste." Dr Alldritt has concerns for the protective enamel coating on your teeth, stating that such a treatment can cause "irreversible damage."

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Supermarket products

White Glo Express Teeth Whitening System ($13.95)

After years of trialing, I swear by this product.
The gel claims to "lift stains and yellowing on the surface of tooth enamel". It comes with a set of mouth trays, which are designed to sit on your teeth for approximately five minutes and hold the gel in place. I've found the gel can be applied directly to the teeth, with no mouth trays needed (they are bulky and slightly uncomfortable). You can buy them online here.
My concern, however, was safety. The product is cheap, and I was once told by a dental assistant that supermarket options damage enamel.
Directions
  • Apply gel to mouth guard (or directly to teeth).
  • Leave on for maximum five minutes.
  • Rinse.

Pros: It works. It's great for a 'top up', if you're going out or think you're teeth are looking dull, the gel works instantaneously. It's affordable and super easy to use.

Cons: White Glo isn't a long term solution. The colour doesn't hold for long, particularly if you drink tea/coffee/red wine.

Expert opinion: "Tooth bleaching products that are available at supermarkets have all been tested for abrasivity and have limited levels of whitening agents allowed, so they are safe to use when following the manufacturer’s instructions," Professor Manton says. (Phew. So relieved.)

This one is my go-to. Image via White Glo.

Crest Whitening Strips ($64.99)

I learned about this product while overseas with a group of New Zealanders who all had bright white teeth. I insisted they tell me how they got them, and the answer was Crest.

You can buy the strips online here. Of all the products I've used, these strips made the most significant difference.

Directions

    • Apply to relatively dry teeth. (Hot tip: Don't apply to freshly brushed teeth.)
    • Leave on for specified amount of time - usually 20-30 minutes.
    • Remove and brush teeth.

Pros: They do a fantastic job, making a dramatic difference to discoloured teeth. They are also relatively affordable.

Cons: When I first started using them I experienced some tooth sensitivity, which is a common side effect. They also have to be ordered online and shipped to Australia because they are only available overseas. Also, the price keeps going up!

Expert opinion: Professor Manton says, "There is no evidence that whitening strips or whitening toothpaste cause any damage to teeth if the manufacturer’s instructions are followed."

Dr Aldritt, on the other hand, warns of side effects such as heightened tooth sensitivity, the ulceration of gums and uneven coloured teeth.

Additional warning - do not use these as part of your daily/weekly beauty routine. Use them scarcely, as specified on the packaging.

Crest White Strips. Image via Crest. 

Zoom Whitening: In the dental chair teeth-whitening/take home kit. (From $650 - $850)

Deep down, we all know having our teeth whitened at the dentist is the safest and most effective method. The in-chair procedure involves a bleaching gel being applied to all teeth. A focused light then activates the gel, and produces the whitening effect, making in-chair whitening the fastest procedure available.

Take home bleaching trays, custom made by your dentist, will have the same results. Your dentist makes a custom mould of your teeth, and provides you with whitening gel to apply at home. There are strict instructions that are very important to adhere to. You can read more about the procedure here.

Pros: So. Many. Pros. The effects are long lasting (two to three years), especially if you avoid stain-causing food and beverages. It's quick and easy. The dentist examines your teeth, meaning they know exactly how much peroxide to apply. You are in the hands of the experts.

Cons: Cost.

Expert opinion: GET IT DONE AT THE DENTIST. OK, so they might not have yelled that, but dentists would very much like you to trust them when it comes to teeth whitening.

Dr Alldritt recommends home whitening trays or those performed by a dentist. "In-chair whitening at the dental practice allows your dentist to use a higher concentration of bleach and often with immediate results," he explains. Professor Manton agrees that whitening as administered by a dentist is by far the best way to go. (Post continues after gallery.)

Here are some parting words, courtesy of our two fantastic experts:

Whatever you choose to do, you should do so in consultation with a professional. Only a dentist can advise what whitening treatment will work for you and what potential side effects you could experience.

This is especially important if you have fillings, crowns, sensitive teeth or any extremely dark stains. Individuals with veneers also cannot use any of the above treatments.

Good luck and be safe.

P.S. I guarantee your smile is perfect just the way it is.

Have you ever tried a teeth whitening treatment? What did you think?

Featured image: Getty

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