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Dazzling smiles seem to be within everyone's reach, thanks to the booming teeth-whitening business. From over-the-counter strips to treatments in a dentist's office, you have a lot of options for brightening up stained or darkened teeth.

Side effects aren't common when you use at-home products as directed, but they can happen. Before you start a do-it-yourself whitening routine, though, learn how to keep your smile safe.

See Your Dentist First

Get a professional cleaning and mouth exam, even if you decide to whiten your teeth at home. You might only need a thorough cleaning to restore your smile's sparkle.

Your dentist will also look for cavities and check the health of your gums during the exam. Treating any problems before you whiten is safer for your mouth.

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

Shop Wisely

At-home whiteners have peroxides, typically carbamide peroxide, in amounts ranging from 10% to 20%.

Choose a product with a peroxide level somewhere in the middle of that range. If the product doesn’t bother your mouth but doesn’t provide the lightening effect you want, you can choose a higher level. If you have any questions, your dentist can help you find the whitener that best fits your needs.

Follow Directions

Don’t leave the strips or gels on longer than advised -- you might wind up with sore gums and set yourself up for other problems. 

After you whiten, avoid soda, sports drinks, or other acidic beverages for a couple of hours to protect your teeth.

When Not to Whiten

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

Porcelain or composite dental crowns and bondings won't lighten up. So if you change the color of the teeth around them, you might wind up with an uneven smile.

Protect Sensitive Teeth

Your teeth may become mildly sensitive after you whiten, but it’s usually short term. It might be less of an issue if your teeth and gums are in good shape. If it bothers you, stop the treatment and talk to your dentist.

Gel-filled trays, which you wear over your teeth like a mouth guard, can also bother your gums if they don't fit well. It’s a good idea to stop using the product if you start having this problem.