At-Home Teeth Whitening 101

Even toothpaste claims to whiten teeth these days, but how do you know what really works, if you’re doing it right, and is it really supposed to hurt? We talked to New York cosmetic dentist Dr. Timothy Chase about the effective middle ground between gum that claims to whiten your teeth and a trip to the dentist.

What should I know before I begin?
“The most important thing is to make sure you’re whitening clean, healthy teeth,” Dr. Chase says. If you’ve been putting off a scheduled cleaning, have gingivitis, or untreated cavities, you’ll need to visit your dentist first, or you may end up with mediocre results and excessive sensitivity. At-home products won’t whiten veneers, caps, or crowns. While whitening it’s also important to remember to avoid things that stain teeth—coffee, red wine, marinara sauce, cigarettes—for 12 hours before and after you whiten.

What actually works?
The two most effective options are strips and trays. The former is a great choice for beginners because they’re incredibly easy to use. Trays require a little more work, but can be more effective since they allow the active ingredients to get into all the nooks and crannies of teeth that strips don’t reach. For strips, your best bet is Crest, according to Dr. Chase (they have many different Whitestrips now, from 1-day treatments to gentle formulas.) As for trays, the kits in our slideshow include everything you need, or you can purchase boil-and-bite trays and individual syringes of gel to save a few bucks.

What’s the difference between drugstore options and higher-end choices?
Mainly, the amount of the active ingredient: peroxide. The higher the percent of peroxide, the faster and better the results, but the stronger option isn’t always the best for everyone. “You want to find a strength that gets you the results you want, with the least amount of sensitivity,” Dr. Chase says. If you’re going the tray and gel route, try a 22-percent formula to start—then go higher or lower based on your experience. Drugstore kits are a little easier to navigate: 1-hour white options are more concentrated, while sensitive and gentle kits are lower in peroxide, but require more applications. Brands like Opalescence and Nite White also include ingredients to help sensitivity in their formulas.

Is sensitivity normal?
Yes, and can range from slight gum irritation, sensitivity to hot or cold beverages, to a sensation Dr. Chase calls “the zings.” (If you’ve ever whitened you probably know what he’s talking about.) It’s a sharp, sudden pain in your tooth during whitening that lasts a second or two. It won’t cause any long-term damage, but may be a sign you need to lay off whitening for a few days and add in a sensitivity toothpaste, like Sensodyne.

How often can I whiten?
While we prefer a natural look over blinding white teeth, Dr. Chase says there aren’t really limits. “You can whiten all you want,” he says. “Studies show there are no adverse effects. As long as you aren’t getting pain, and your teeth aren’t becoming translucent or gray.”

What about all the other stuff, like mouthwashes, gum, and floss?
Honestly, they’re not that effective. “Anything that lacks direct contact with your teeth—like whitening gum—hasn’t been proven to work,” Dr. Chase says. But click through our slideshow for things that really do work!