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Who doesn't want a sparkling smile?

Coffee, tea, wine, and other foods discolor teeth over time. If your smile has lost its luster, several teeth-whitening techniques are available.

At-Home Products

  • Whitening rinses. Used like a mouthwash, these products contain whitening agents. They're easy to use. All you do is swirl the rinse around your mouth for a minute. Because the whitening agent is in contact with teeth for a short time, rinses whiten teeth gradually.
  • Whitening toothpaste. Whitening toothpastes have mild abrasives or enzymes that remove surface stains with gentle brushing. Some people develop sensitive teeth if they use these products.
  • Gel strips. These are usually applied to teeth once a day for up to 2 hours. For full effect, most strips are worn for 10 to 20 days, depending on the strength.
  • Whitening trays. Plastic trays filled with whitening gel fit over teeth like a tooth guard. These products whiten teeth fast. But because trays sold in at-home kits aren't custom-made to fit your teeth, they're more likely to rub and irritate gums.

If you decide to try an at-home whitener, follow package directions.

In-Office Procedures

The most common in-office whitening procedure involves custom-made trays filled with bleaching solution that fit firmly over teeth. Because your dentist supervises the procedure, a stronger bleaching solution can be used than what's found in home kits. He may recommend doing the entire procedure in the office. In that case, a light or heat source may be used to speed up the process. As an alternative, you may be fitted for custom-made whitening trays that can be used at home.

Which Is Right for You?

"If your teeth and gums are in excellent condition, you may want to consider an [at-home] whitener," says Kellee Kattleman Stanton, DDS. She's a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

At-home whiteners are easy to use and relatively inexpensive (compared to a $300-$500 office visit). But if your teeth or gums are sensitive, at-home whiteners may not be the best choice because they can cause irritation. Your dentist can provide custom-made trays.

Speed may also matter to you. Professional solutions are typically stronger than those in over-the-counter kits, so you get results faster. Your dentist can also make sure that sensitive gums aren't exposed to whitening agents and use desensitizers.

Whiteners only work on natural enamel -- that's the tough outer surface of your teeth. "If you whiten your teeth too much, you can end up making your natural teeth whiter than neighboring crowns or composite fillings," Stanton says. "Using whiteners too often, especially in combination with whitening tooth paste, can even turn teeth a little gray."

Who shouldn't use whiteners? Women who are pregnant or nursing and anyone with gum problems or untreated tooth decay. People with sensitive teeth should be cautious. Talk to your dentist first.

 

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