Addictive Pursuit of Pearly Whites?
Some users of teeth-whitening products become fixated on getting the perfect smile.
The Warning Signs of Overuse
While Messina underscores that "tooth whitening is a very safe and effective technique when done according to the product manufacturer's instructions and under the recommendations of a dentist," some people are after more than that. The warning sign for Messina is when patients "look for changes in their teeth to correct other issues and problems that have nothing to do with their teeth," such as improving their social lives or getting a better job.
Messina says that even a little bit of overuse of an over-the-counter whitening agent "is not going to do any long-term damage. The reason, he says, is "the safety margins for over-the-counter products is pretty large."
Doundoulakis, however, has seen people who have overdone the process. "The ones I have seen are getting results but their teeth are beyond snow white, they're like Clorox-white," he says. "They just want to keep doing it. They're going to keep doing it until those teeth are almost transparent."
Doundoulakis says they also might wind up with a root canal problem. He concedes that sometimes patients like these are unable to register that their teeth are already quite white. "They like the process of whitening," he says.
Messina has also observed patients whose dedication to regular whitening takes on a "more ritualistic" tone.
Can Teeth Be Damaged?
Richard M. Lichtenthal, DDS, says over-the-counter products are "not quite as strong in their bleaching activity, but there are people who will not follow manufacturer's instructions, and so the process can be abused."
Lichtenthal is in private practice in New York and is also chairman of a section of adult dentistry at the Columbia University School of Dentistry. He says overuse may cause sensitivity of the teeth, although "it will be very unlikely that damage to the surface of the tooth will be caused before the sensitivity occurs."
"When the teeth become sensitive, generally, people will stop using it," Lichtenthal says.
Some of the damage may be financial. Over-the-counter products may not be a bargain in the long run.
Because the bleaching material in over-the-counter products are weaker than the product one may obtain in a dentist's office, it's reasonable to assume that consumers may need more of it, and that this might contribute to overuse. The results may not be what the consumer had hoped for either.