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Dazzling smiles seem to be within everyone's reach, thanks to the booming teeth-whitening business. From over-the-counter whitening strips to professional treatments in a dental office, there seems to be no reason to put up with stained or darkening teeth.

Side effects aren't common when these products are used as directed, but they can occur. Before you embark on a do-it-yourself whitening regimen, here are some teeth whitening safety tips to keep your mouth and gums healthy.

See Your Dentist First

Get a professional cleaning and mouth exam, even if you decide to whiten teeth at home using over-the-counter strips or gels. It could be that all you need is a thorough cleaning to restore your teeth's sparkling good looks. 

The exam also finds cavities. Getting your cavities treated first is crucial to keep teeth whitening safe.

Your dentist will check the health of your gums. If they are inflamed, it’s wise to postpone the whitening.

Ask your dentist for advice about which over-the-counter system to use. Ask the dentist how much lightening you might expect. Teeth do darken with age, and the range of color varies from person to person.

Shop Wisely for Teeth Whitening Products

At-home teeth whitening products contain peroxides, typically carbamide peroxide, in various concentrations -- often 10% to 20% or so.

Choose a product with a mid-range bleaching agent -- not the lowest concentration and not the highest.  If you tolerate it well but aren't getting the lightening effect you want, you can choose a higher concentration.

Some home teeth whitening products have the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance.

Follow Directions to the Letter

Leaving the strips or gels on longer than advised can irritate the gums. More isn't better and could lead to problems.

For instance, many over-the-counter teeth whitening strips suggest using for 30 minutes a day for about two weeks. Using longer can increase the risk of gum inflammation and oral problems later.

After the teeth whitening session, avoid acidic beverages such as soda or sports drinks for a couple of hours to protect your teeth.

Be Realistic

To be on the safe side, pregnant women or nursing mothers should postpone teeth whitening.

Porcelain or composite crowns won't whiten. So if you have crowns that show when you smile, teeth whitening might produce an uneven appearance of color. 

Be on the Lookout for Sensitive Teeth

Mild and temporary tooth sensitivity can occur with many teeth whitening products. If inflammation or sensitivity are bothersome, discontinue the treatment and speak with your dentist.

If the trays don't fit well, they can irritate the gums. If you notice that effect, it's also wise to stop the teeth whitening product.

If your teeth and gums are in good shape, sensitivity might be less of an issue.  

Don't Become a Whitening Addict

With the affordability and variety of do-it-yourself teeth-whitening products, some people think more is better.

How much is too much? After following the directions for whitening, and getting a good result, a once-a-month preventive or touch-up session is usually enough.

When teeth reach a realistic shade, you only need to repeat the multiple bleaching sessions twice a year or less.

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