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The most common reason for tooth discoloration is age. Over the years, tooth enamel thins, allowing teeth to become stained by things like red wine, coffee and berries. A little teeth whitening may help bring back your youthful grin, but how do you know which methods to try? Can you make it happen at home, or do you need to settle into the dentist chair?
Dr. Juliana da Costa, a teeth whitening and restorative dentistry specialist at Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry, helps us examine the effective--and not-so-effective--home remedies, over-the-counter products, and professional whitening tactics.
How effective are home-spun solutions? Some people believe that natural solutions can't hurt you, but that's not always true.
Strawberries: Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones recently told London's Daily Mail that she cleanses her teeth after a meal with acidic fruit such as apples, pineapples or strawberries. She claims the malic acid in those fruits works as an astringent to lighten teeth.
"Berries typically stain teeth," says Dr. da Costa. "It [malic acid] could abrade enamel." So movie stars may not know everything about megawatt smiles. And studies show that acidic foods may actually damage tooth enamel.
Baking Soda: A popular, thrifty alternative to toothpaste is baking soda. It will remove daily food stains, but it will also erode the enamel of your teeth if used too often. A cleaning with baking soda should only be done 1-2 times a month.
Hydrogen Peroxide: The main active ingredient in professional teeth whitening products is hydrogen peroxide, so why not do it yourself?
Well, says Dr. da Costa: "The hydrogen peroxide prescribed by dentists is a lower concentration. There's no research on hydrogen peroxide alone so it may not be safe for teeth and gum tissues."
How about store-bought solutions--are they worth the money? Let's take a look at the most commonly used products.
Toothpaste/mouthwash: It's hard to find a toothpaste or mouthwash that doesn't claim to whiten teeth. But Dr. da Costa says they do not provide significant whitening, and are best used for maintenance between professional cleanings.
"They help remove extrinsic stains, or stains caused by food each day," said Dr. da Costa. "But they taste awful."
White strips: "White strips work really well," Dr. da Costa says. "The problem is compliance." In other words, people don't always follow the package instructions.
Whitening strips cost $30-$50. The ingredients and method of whitening are similar to a professional bleaching treatment.
The downside? The strips are uncomfortable and they only whiten from canine to canine, rather than the whole mouth. But, of course, canine to canine is the part of your mouth most people see, right? So it's not too much of a downside.
Dentists keep our teeth in working order--should we turn to them when it comes to keeping them gleaming? There are several professional options to consider.
Bleaching: Professional bleaching can be done at home or in the dentist's office. In the office treatment, a tray filled with concentrated gel is placed on the teeth for an hour. At home, patients wear the trays for up to 8 hours at a time, often while they sleep.
Dr. da Costa recently concluded a study comparing home and in-office bleaching and found they whitened teeth equally. A take-home kit costs about $300-$600; the in-office treatment is about $600-$1,000. Bleaching lasts 2-3 years and is considered safe by the American Dental Association.
Light-Activated Bleaching: Sometimes inaccurately referred to as laser teeth whitening, this new treatment simply sheds light on teeth as they receive an in-office bleaching treatment. Companies such as BriteSmile and Zoom! claim the light heats up the bleach and speeds up the bleaching process. Results are the same as bleaching alone. Light-activated bleaching costs more than $1,000.
Veneers: Porcelain veneers are bonded to the fronts of the teeth and are only recommended for extreme cases of teeth discoloration, or for teeth that are worn down, chipped, or misshapen. Veneers cost $500-$1,300 per tooth and need to be replaced every 5-10 years.
The bottom line: It takes time to undo years of stains. Bleaching trays provided by the dentist or whitening strips from the drugstore will bleach teeth for extended periods of time, and probably provide the best value for your money. If you're interested in a whiter smile, talk to your dentist before starting any new tooth-care routine.
About the Author
Anna Johns is a freelance writer and podcast producer in Beaverton, Ore. She is one of the hosts of Regence Radio and co-hosts a weekly pop culture podcast called Delta Park Project. Her print work has appeared in The Portland Tribune, Oregon Business Magazine and Oregon Bride. She is mom to 2-year-old Elliot.