Choose the Best Teeth Whitener

Medically Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on January 29, 2016
3 min read

Are your pearly whites not quite as white as you’d like? There’s a lot you can do to turn your stained or yellowish choppers into brighter, dazzling ones.

“You can see why whitening is so popular. It works for most people,” says Edmond R. Hewlett, DDS, an associate dean at the UCLA School of Dentistry.

Some of your best bets to do it? You could get a professional bleaching at your dentist’s office, apply a home-use product from your dentist, or use over-the-counter whitening strips. The right option for you depends on how much you want to spend and how quickly you want to see results.

Your dentist will use a much stronger whitener than anything you could get at the store or online.

Whitening gels used by dentists usually have a 25% to 40% concentration of hydrogen peroxide, says Yiming Li, DDS, PhD, professor of restorative dentistry at Loma Linda University School of Dentistry. That’s the stuff that changes the color of your teeth.

The gel stays on for 15 or 20 minutes. That process is repeated once or twice. Sometimes the dentist aims a light at your teeth to speed up the whitening (although most studies show the lights don’t do much). This whole treatment costs around $500 or $600, but many dentists offer discounts to attract new patients.

Hewlett says you should see a difference about 45 minutes.

Victor K. Ryoo, DDS, owner of Ryoo Dental in Fullerton, CA, has seen varying results with in-office bleaching.

“People expect that they’ll come in for an hour and that their teeth will be dazzling white and that’s not the case. It will always depend on what the starting point is and what their habits have been in the past,” including whether they're heavy coffee drinkers or drink red wine, he says.

Your second option is to ask your dentist to give you a take-home treatment. He’ll take an impression of your teeth and use that to make a fitted tray. The whitening gel goes inside the mouth guard. It comes in several strengths. You can wear the guard while you’re asleep if you have a lighter gel, or for 30 minutes to an hour each day if it’s a higher-power option.

Most people will see a difference in about 2 to 3 weeks. The treatment only works if you use it, though, so you have to be motivated to follow through with it, Ryoo says.

Aside from cost, the main drawback is tooth sensitivity. While any kind of whitening can cause it, stronger products are more likely to bring it on, Hewlett says. "It’s a balance between getting the job done and having it being comfortable."

Switch to a toothpaste for sensitive teeth a week before you start the whitening. Keep using it during treatment. Once you stop whitening, the problem goes away.

If you’re looking for a wallet-friendly option, consider buying whitening strips at the drugstore. Kits range from about $30 to $65.

They do work, Hewlett says. He suggests you see a dentist first to:

  • Rule out cavities and gum problems.
  • Make sure the color of your teeth would benefit from the process.

Whitening mouthwashes, on the other hand, probably won’t do much. And whitening toothpastes are designed to remove stains on your teeth, not to make them whiter. Some have a small amount of peroxide, but not enough to change tooth color. If you’ve already whitened your teeth, these products can help you maintain the color. Be sure to choose one with fluoride.

Once your teeth are dazzling, you’ll need to whiten them every 6 months or once a year to keep them looking the way you want.

Even after a professional whitening, your choppers can still get stained on the outside from drinking coffee, tea, and red wine, and from smoking. If you light up, kick the habit. Also, rinse out your mouth with water after you sip a dark drink to lower the chances of stains. You can also pass a damp toothbrush over your teeth.

And while it may be tempting to want a blinding movie-star white smile, Li says dentists advise against bleaching too much. Your teeth won’t look natural if they’re lighter than the whites of your eyes.