Can Teeth Whitening Become an Addiction?

Seeking the perfect smile? Here's how to make sure you don't get carried away with teeth whitening.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 23, 2008
5 min read

Americans love a white smile. And, increasingly, we're using teeth whitening treatments to get one. Teeth whitening treatments are now the No. 1 requested cosmetic dental procedure, having increased more than 300% since 1996, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

At-home teeth whitening treatments have become increasingly popular as well. An array of over-the-counter tooth bleaching kits can be found in most any drugstore, discount store, or even grocery store.

But there's such a thing as too much of a good thing. While most would stop short of calling it an addiction, dentists say some people do overdo it in the quest for the perfect smile (or at least one as bright as those of Matthew McConaughey or Julia Roberts).

"Yes, there definitely is a tendency of people to overuse them, although most people don't," says Marty Zase, DMD, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

It's another example of the keeping up with the Joneses, Zase says: "Now the Joneses have white teeth."

"Some people see that some beauty is good, so obviously a lot must be better," he says. "Certainly there are some people that you just can't teach the subtlety of a good thing."

Says Van Haywood, DMD, a professor in the Department of Oral Rehabilitation at the Medical College of Georgia: "Some people look like they just glow in the dark. To us dentists, it looks like the most fake-y thing we've ever seen. But to them, it's beauty."

There are two main types of home teeth-whitening products:

  • Whitening strips, thin strips coating with bleaching gel that are applied to the teeth.
  • Tray-based systems, in which a tray filled with beaching solution is worn over the teeth.

Most are meant to be used over a two- to four-week period.

And how long does the whitening effect last? After completing the initial teeth whitening treatment, whether in a dentist's office or using an at-home product, a once-a-month touch-up is probably sufficient, says Matthew Messina, DDS, consumer advisor with the American Dental Association.

People who smoke and drink dark liquids such as tea and coffee might need an update every two weeks.

Your own pearly whites are the best way to tell whether you're overusing teeth whitening products, experts say. Dentists say the biggest signs of overuse are:

  • Excessive sensitivity of the teeth, especially to cold items.
  • Redness, irritation and bleeding in the gums.

Another sign: Your teeth may start to appear translucent or blotchy.

"Some people's teeth get more transparent if you continue whitening. ... You can see right through them and see the dark shadows of your mouth," Haywood says.

(Keep in mind that sensitivity alone doesn't necessarily mean you're overdoing it. About a third of users experience some sensitivity, which goes away in a day or so, Haywood says.)

Robert Gerlach, DDS, MPH, principal scientist for worldwide clinical investigations at Procter & Gamble, maker of Crest Whitestrips, notes that teeth whitening products have a built-in safety mechanism against people over-treating themselves.

"When you've had the peroxide on too long, you can get a real profound, throbbing pain in your tooth. It goes away, but your teeth hurt," Gerlach tells WebMD.

Further, there's a low percentage of whitening agent in over-the-counter teeth whitening products, says Messina.

After you wear products such as Crest Whitestrips for the recommended half-hour time period, virtually all the peroxide is gone from the strip, says Gerlach.

"You can't add more, you can't doctor it," he says.

Gerlach, who has done more than 100 studies on Whitestrips, points out that there has been no evidence of any large-scale abuse or negative effects from people doing at-home teeth whitening.

If you're considering using a tooth whitening product containing bleaches, the American Dental Association recommends that you see your dentist first.

Experts say it's important to talk with a dentist about the reason for any tooth discoloration, whether you're a good candidate for bleaching (which depends in part on your dental health), and how quickly your teeth will change.

It's also important to have realistic expectations.

"Some people get these glow-in-the-dark teeth because their teeth will go that far. But some people's teeth won't go that far," Haywood says. "You have to expect that you won't necessarily turn out like Julia Roberts, because you don't necessarily have the teeth for it."

And how white is white enough? The general guideline is that your teeth are white when they're the color of the whites of your eyes.

"If they get a lot whiter than that, your teeth stand out like the teeth in a Cheshire cat," says Zase.

Because the peroxide in teeth whiteners adds a "sparkle" to teeth immediately after the treatment, Haywood recommends that people wait two weeks until after they've finished the teeth whitening process to see how effective it really was.

Dentists also have these tips about teeth whitening:

  • Use desensitizing toothpaste before and after using teeth whitening products.
  • Get your teeth cleaned before starting teeth whitening.
  • Don't use teeth whitening products when pregnant. Since they haven't been tested on pregnant women, Zase says the danger level is uncertain.
  • Don't use tooth bleaching products if you have crowns, veneers, or bridges. These restorations do not lighten, so you could end up with unevenly colored teeth.
  • A few groups, like people who used tetracycline as young children, may need more teeth whitening than normal, such as six months of continuous daily use. (Gerlach notes that studies show even these patients haven't experienced more adverse effects.)
  • Carefully follow the directions and recommendations on any teeth whitening products you use.
  • To help your newly white teeth stay that way longer, avoid stain-causing food and drinks. Also, follow good oral hygiene practices.
  • If you experience tooth sensitivity after whitening treatments, stop, and wait for the sensitivity to disappear. You can then resume the teeth whitening, but for less time or with a lower-strength product.