What To Know Before Whitening Your Teeth, As Told By A Dental Hygienist

Being that it's January, there are lots of “new year, new me” resolutions floating around. If you happen to be one of those promise-makers and have resolved to take better care of yourself or up your beauty game in 2016, teeth whitening may be on your list of to do’s. After all, the perfect match for the newest lipstick hue is a freshened up set of pearly whites, right?

In my opinion, any resolution that involves taking better care of yourself is a good one, and teeth whitening can be a simple, cost-effective way to treat yourself when your smile is feeling a little dull. If you are anything like me, the last couple of months have been a continuous rotation of coffee and red wine, so it's no wonder many of our chompers could use a little TLC. However, the most important thing to remember if you are considering whitening your teeth is that, even with over-the-counter kits, bleaching treatments are not just cosmetic and can effect dental health. Before taking the teeth whitening plunge, it’s important to gather all the facts.

To better prepare for my upcoming whitening adventures, I sat down with registered dental hygienist Natalie Burnside on the phone, and picked her brain to discover the do’s and don’ts of bleaching treatments. Here are the things to know before whitening your teeth, as told by a dental professional.

1. Not Everyone Should Whiten Their Teeth

So, you want to brighten up your smile, but aren't sure if you are a good candidate? As it turns out, teeth whitening is generally safe and effective with just a few important exceptions. When asked if there are people who should never whiten their teeth, Burnside tells me that only patients with all of their permanent teeth should consider whitening, further explaining, "We do not recommend that children or people who haven't lost all of their baby teeth use whitening treatments. Baby teeth and adult teeth are different colors — baby teeth are a milk white color and adult teeth will never be that bright white because the enamel is not as thick. Teeth whitening treatments should not be used until all adult teeth have come in and can be assessed for necessary treatment."

As far as adults are concerned, the only people who are not good candidates for whitening treatments are those who have had extensive dental work done, such as composite fillings, crowns, or implants. "These matters (resin materials and porcelain crowns) don't bleach, so the teeth will whiten, but the crowns and implants will not, leaving them two different shades," Natalie explains. "If you plan to/know you need to have extensive dental work done, you should bleach your teeth prior to the restorative work being done so the doctor can match the restorative work to the newly bleached teeth."

2. Treatments Are Generally Safe And Healthy

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A bright white smile may be something many of us are after, but not at the cost of our wellbeing. The good news is, our resident expert confirms that whitening treatments are, overall, safe to use.

"Generally speaking, it is safe and healthy to whiten your teeth when the products are used within the recommended guidelines."

Further driving home the importance of abiding by the product directions, Burnside reminds us that, "Patients can experience some negative side effects — such as tooth sensitivity or soft tissue damage — but that tends to happen when directions and guidelines are not followed."

3. Over-The-Counter Treatments Are Just As Safe As Those Done By A Dentist

While there are various over-the-counter options available when it comes to whitening our teeth, there are also in-office treatments that may have some of us wondering if it is safer to seek out professional help. However, Burnside reassures us that whitening at home is just as safe as having a professional treatment done by a dentist.

"All whitening treatments are safe as long as they are used as directed." She also adds that, "Some people may have trauma or intrinsic staining — staining that is inside the tooth rather than on the surface — which would need to be treated professionally, but otherwise, at-home treatments are just as safe as in-office procedures when used properly."

4. Everyone's Teeth Are Different

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Pearly whites are a smile's best friend, but knowledge is power and Burnside came prepared to give us all the important details, like how to choose the proper treatment.

"Before you begin whitening your teeth, you should consider how much you are willing and able to spend and how compliant you will be. This will help you decide which treatment is best for you and ensure you get the desired results. Don't choose a month-long regiment if you know you will only keep up with it for a week."

If you are curious or even worried about tooth sensitivity, you aren't alone. Many people who whiten their teeth experience it, but Burnside states that some tenderness is to be expected and can be combatted. She tells me, "If you already have sensitive teeth prior to whitening, you should plan accordingly and begin a high fluoride treatment to limit sensitivity. If severe sensitivity persists, you should see a dental professional."

In addition, it is common knowledge that our coffee addiction is not helping our desire for white teeth, but Burnside further explains how damaging consuming staining food and drink can be. "People who plan to whiten their teeth should prepare to steer clear of staining products while they are bleaching," she says. "Drinks such as red wine and coffee or products like tobacco should be avoided whenever possible, but should absolutely not be used for two hours after whitening. During this time, the portals in your teeth are open, which allows the stains to be removed, but they will also suck stains in faster than they normally would."

Lastly, we must remember that no two sets of teeth are the same and, as our professional confirms, "Results will vary! Everyone's teeth are different and each person's dentin varies in color."

5. Avoid Hydrogen Peroxide

Sometimes, what not to do is just as important as what to do. Burnside takes a page out of T. Swift's book as she gives me a list of things we should never, ever, ever do when it comes to whitening our teeth. First up: Hydrogen peroxide is not a pearly white's best friend.

"You should never swish with hydrogen peroxide. Many times, people think that, because there is peroxide in bleach treatments, they can swish with hydrogen peroxide to whiten their teeth. However, doing so will severely damage the soft tissue and mucosa in your mouth, so do not rinse with it," she tells me.

The whitening rules to live by are pretty simple, though. To be safe, Burnside says, "Anyone looking to whiten their teeth should be very wary of DIY regiments and recipes found on Pinterest and the Internet. It is always best to use a treatment that is ADA-approved or doctor-prescribed."

In the same vein, it is important to know who the professionals are. If you are going to forgo over-the-counter treatment in lieu of a doctor-administered bleaching, make sure you see a registered dentist. "Never, ever, ever go to a cart, stand, or mobile whitening unit, as the people who work within them are not [always] dental professionals," says Burnside.

6. How Often You Whiten Depends On The Method

Naturally, we want to keep our sparkling smiles shining, but we also want to be safe, so it is important to understand how often we can whiten to keep our chompers stain-free and healthy. In regards to proper cadence, Burnside advises that, as with most other aspects of teeth whitening, following the recommended guidelines for your product of choice is of the utmost importance.

"Every product has different recommendations and the guidelines for each specific product should be reviewed and closely followed," she explains. "Some products can be used daily, while some are once a week or monthly. In-office procedures, like zoom whitening, are typically one-time treatments. To be safe, ensure you follow the directions and, again, do not over whiten."

7. There Are Hacks To Prolong Whitening

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According to Burnside, there are tips and tricks that can be worked into a daily hygiene regimen to keep teeth from discoloring. For starters, "Continue to steer clear of or limit the use of staining food and drink or seek out tips and tricks to help avoid the staining," she advises. "A common hack for coffee drinkers is to drink your coffee through a straw to limit contact with teeth. You can also use a sonic toothbrush, which will aid in keeping staining at bay and many whitening products will give a recommended touch up procedure."

8. Name Brands Are Your Friend

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The number of choices when it comes to teeth-whitening can be a bit intimidating and overwhelming, but the good news is that Burnside has some easy tips for picking one that will work for you. Most importantly, she believes that, when it comes to teeth whitening, name brands are important.

"You should look for a name brand that you are familiar with, rather than using an off-brand. Most name brands are safe and effective, and set a good standard for their whitening product."

After narrowing down your choices to only name brands, your preferences come in to play. "When preparing to choose a treatment, find one that fits your ideal time period and price point," Burnside tells me. "The most important thing is your compliance, so if you know you won't have time to whiten for an entire month, choose a kit that is intended for faster whitening."

9. White Teeth Aren't The Only Key To Healthy Teeth

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When given the chance to provide any additional advice, Burnside reminds us that compliance and a proper dental hygiene routine are vital to healthy teeth.

"Compliance is key," she states firmly. "Make sure you are following the directions and following the entire treatment plan."

And in true dental hygienist form, she reminds us that white teeth are not always healthy teeth, getting a plug in for the importance of flossing.

"Most importantly, the goal shouldn't only be white teeth, but also healthy teeth. Ensure you are following other necessary dental procedures, such as regular brushing and flossing. White teeth are not always healthy, so a good hygiene regimen is key."

And that's it! Achieving a pearly smile isn't so difficult, after all.

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