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Whitening Your Not-So-Pearly Whites


Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD

WebMD Feature

Whitening Your Not-So-Pearly Whites

Your pearly whites not so pearly anymore? That can happen to any of us, for any number of reasons. The good news is that you don't have to live with a smile you're less than happy with. Tooth whitening can restore your teeth to their earlier brightness. But given the number of options and the cost and time involved with each one, how do you know which one is right for you?

As we age, the outer layer of enamel on our teeth is worn away, eventually revealing the darker tissue underneath, at the center of the tooth around the nerves and blood vessels. Our teeth may also become discolored from smoking, from drinking coffee, tea, and wine, and even from taking certain medications as a child such as tetracycline.

"It's like wearing a great outfit or wonderful accessory," says Wynn Okuda, DMD, national president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD). "Having your teeth whitened makes you feel good."

Almost everyone wants whiter teeth these days, adds Melissa Ing, DMD, associate professor of prosthodontics at the University of Connecticut Health Center. "It's the number one aesthetic concern of my patients," she says.

Ing is not alone in noticing the upsurge in requests for a brighter smile.

That may be because it's fairly easy to accommodate those requests, says Ing. "Tooth whitening or bleaching works for most people and my patients who have done it are happy with the results."

Two Ways to Tooth Whitening

Tooth whitening can be achieved in two ways. A product can bleach the tooth. That means it actually changes the natural tooth color, usually anywhere from five to seven -- but even up to twelve -- shades brighter, which is how dentists assess tooth color. Bleaching products contain peroxides that help remove both deep and surface stains. The second whitening process uses non-bleaching products that work by physical or chemical action to help remove surface stains only.

A newcomer to the world of tooth whitening is known as chairside bleaching. This may require more than one visit, with each visit lasting 30 to 60 minutes. During chairside bleaching, your dentist applies either a protective gel to your gums or a rubber shield to protect the soft tissues in the mouth. A bleaching agent is then applied to the teeth, and a special light may be used to enhance the action of the agent.

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