Whitening Your Teeth? Here's How to Pick the Perfect Shade

Portrait of a smiling woman in a camel-colored Dalmatian print top.


Over time our teeth tend to lose their natural pearly white glow, much to our dismay. There are two main causes of tooth discoloration: Intrinsic and extrinsic staining. Intrinsic or internal staining is typically caused by factors such as genetics, age, and developmental disorders. Extrinsic or external staining is generally attributed to environmental factors including smoking, pigments in beverages (hello coffee and wine), foods, and antibiotics. Both causes result in teeth that appear stained and discolored, and both often call for teeth whitening treatment as a result.

Once you've committed to the idea of whitening your teeth, the next step is finding the perfect shade for you. What goes into deciding the right shade of white? We tapped cosmetic dentist Amanda Lewis, DMD, and teeth whitening technician Natalia Radosz to find out.

Meet the Expert

What Are the Shade Ranges for Teeth?

All teeth are different, so naturally, there are different shades of white when it comes to bleaching. While Radosz shares that there is technically no way to guarantee the shade of white your teeth will achieve due to the nature of every tooth being unique (more on this later), there is a universal scale that whitening technicians will often refer back to.

The VITA Classic and VITA Master Shade guides are the two most popularly used, both of which are physical structures with shade assessment tools broken down into three categories: brightness, chroma, and hue. While there is no universal tooth color, typically teeth are broken down by their undertones—most popularly red, brown, yellow, or gray. Once you've identified your shade, the color scale instruments come into the picture to help you generate an idea of the level of whitening you're interested in.

Factors to Consider When Picking Your Shade

Similar to bleaching your hair, when choosing the right shade for your teeth, there are multiple factors you'll want to consider. "Whenever we’re looking at choosing a shade for a client, we consider their age and their lifestyle," says Lewis. "Are they active? Do they like a full uniform look? Sometimes people want [a look that is] more natural, where the color is different throughout the tooth."

You'll also want to factor in just how white you're looking to go. Whitening toothpastes can typically lighten tooth color by about one or two shades, but if you're looking for a more intense and more permanent white, an in-office treatment is likely what you'll need to achieve this goal.

How to Achieve Your Desired Shade

Achieving your desired shade can be more complicated than expected, the experts share.

"Some teeth will get extremely white with one session while others may need two or even three sessions to lift a few shades," says Radosz. "We check your shade when we start and on average, we see your teeth whiten three to four shades with one 20-minute session. There is no way to [actually] choose a shade because it just depends on your teeth and your genetics."

While you can control how often you professionally whiten your teeth or use whitening products, actual shade is generally more of a trial-and-error process that involves learning how your teeth will react to different whitening methods. Teeth whitening systems can vary from at-home toothpastes, strips, and gels (which typically lighten your teeth one to two shades per session), to in-office sessions which can drastically lift the color from your teeth in a quicker fashion. If you opt for an at-home option, do your research first. "There are some that work and many that are extremely gimmicky," notes Radosz.

With so many options, finding a starting point can feel overwhelming. "I recommend starting your whitening journey with a professional," says Radosz. "After [your treatment], they will generally recommend an at-home kit to maintain your results."

How to Maintain Your Shade

Once you've achieved your desired shade of white, the quest to keep the color flawlessly intact officially begins.

The experts agree: The first 48 hours are the most crucial to maintaining the whitest white. "The best way to maintain your shade post-whitening is to limit staining foods, especially in the first 48-72 hours after whitening," says Lewis. "You want to avoid coffee, red wine, berries—anything that stains. There are some foods like curry that can cause staining as well. I sometimes go a few months without whitening. It depends on how often you eat staining foods."

"Your teeth are super porous the first 24 hours after a whitening [session]," Radosz adds. "You should be on a white food diet. Your teeth are even more prone to staining than before." She also notes that while people look for a workaround when it comes to their caffeine, it really is best to just abstain. "People always ask 'can I drink my coffee with a straw?' but it’s always recommended to avoid the first 24 hours," Radosz confirms.

Once you've survived the first day stain-free, you'll continue maintenance and upkeep to ensure longer-lasting results. Maintenance and results will depend on the person, Radosz shares. "We generally see our clients every six months, but whitening can last even a few years," she says. "Again, it really depends on the person, their genetics, eating and drinking habits, and how you take care of your teeth. We sell a whitening paste to our customers called Smile 2 Go ($35). This is a paste that breaks apart plaque and whitens your teeth little by little. We also recommend purchasing our at-home whitening kit to keep your teeth looking pearly white."

The Final Takeaway

If you've been feeling insecure about stained or yellow teeth, it's important not to be too hard on yourself. But, if you're ready to take steps toward whitening your smile, remember you've got options. Whether you opt to start small at home with toothpaste or take the full plunge and professionally whiten, noticeable results are generally achievable.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Carey CM. Tooth whitening: what we now knowJ Evid Based Dent Pract. 2014;14 Suppl:70-76. doi:10.1016/j.jebdp.2014.02.006

  2. Hombesh MN, Praveen B, Sinha HV, Prasanna BG, Sachin B, Chandrashekar S. Two years survivability of VITA 3D master shade matching guides after disinfection with isopropyl alcohol: An in vitro study. J Conserv Dent. 2019;22(3):275-280. doi:10.4103/JCD.JCD_573_18

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