Teeth Whitening: What Are Your Options?

Many people find that their teeth become discolored over the years. Coffee, cola, and cigarettes are the usual causes of discolored teeth. Luckily, there are several options for returning the gleam to your smile, but sometimes the options can lead to confusion about what might be best for you.

You should talk with your dentist about which options are right for you. In the meantime, here is some information about the different techniques for whitening your teeth, along with the side effects.

Teeth Whitening Success

Ultimately, the success of teeth whitening procedures depends on your teeth. Bleaching procedures may not change the color of bonding or tooth-colored fillings. If you have any of these items in your front teeth, they may stand out as a different color from your newly whitened smile. Porcelain veneers and dental bonding are other options for people with bonding or tooth-colored fillings, but they can be much more expensive.

Over the last 20 years, teeth whitening has evolved into 4 main types:

  • Application in-office by a dentist
  • Prescription by a dentist to use whitening products at home
  • Over-the-counter whitening products to use at home
  • Bleaching at a non-dental facility like a spa, or mall store

At the present time, the United States does not have any regulations on peroxide-based materials. Some states however, are looking into taking action to limit patient risks in non-dental settings. This is being done through state dental board decisions, attorney general investigations, and legislation. It does not mean that they are unsafe places, but you should be aware of all the risks associated with all of the methods.

In-Office Bleaching

One place you may try is the dentist office. Most do whitening and it does not take long to get the look you want.

At the office, your dentist can bleach your teeth in about 1 hour, but you may need several visits. The bleaching solution a dentist may use for in-office procedures contains between 25%-40% hydrogen peroxide.

First, the dentist applies a protective gel or rubber shield to protect your gums and other mouth tissues from the bleaching agent. Next, the bleaching agent is applied to your teeth. Some dentists use a special light or laser on your teeth to enhance the action of the bleaching agent. The American Dental Association has not found any additional long-term benefit from using light activation in clinical studies.

Depending on the condition of your teeth, you and your dentist may decide that you may be able to bleach your teeth on your own time at home.

At-Home Bleaching

You can buy your own home-bleaching kit at the drug store or you can get a custom kit from your dentist. These bleaching solutions are typically gels containing 10% carbamide peroxide. The gel is in a flexible tray that you wear in your mouth. The benefit of getting a kit from your dentist is that the tray can be custom fit to your mouth, maximizing contact of the solution to your teeth. Solutions provided by your dentist generally are applied for a few hours a day for 1 to 2 weeks

Whitening strips that are available in places like drug stores may be a familiar sight to you. These contain a low concentration of peroxide and are generally worn at night or during the day at frequent intervals. They can be effective for age-related staining, but are more useful in maintaining professional results.

Another widely available method is whitening toothpaste, mouth rinse, and chewing gum. These methods remove stains mechanically, but only on the surfaces of your teeth. Again, these may be useful for maintenance after professional whitening.

There are other factors to consider. What kinds of effects can this have on your teeth? Are the effects permanent?

Side Effects

Whether you whiten at home or at the dentist office, common side effects of bleaching procedures include tooth sensitivity and gum irritation. Gum irritation can occur from something like a poor fitting tray or with use of the bleaching solutions. The good news is that both effects are temporary and generally fade after treatment stops.

You also want to remember that overuse of over-the-counter bleaching kits can wear way tooth enamel, especially if they contain acid. Be sure to read and follow the directions carefully.

If you are serious about finding a method to whiten your teeth and brighten your smile, take some time to talk to a dental professional. A complete evaluation will leave you in better shape to understand your options and allow you to make a safer and affordable decision.


American Dental Hygenists' Association
Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association


Canadian Dental Association
The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association


Statement on the Safety and Effectiveness of Tooth Whitening Products. American Dental Association website. Available at
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Updated April 2012. Accessed October 24, 2016.
Tooth Whitening Systems. American Dental Hygienists’ Association website. Available at: https://www.adha.org/sites/default/files/7227_Tooth_Whitening_1.pdf. Accessed October 24, 2016.
Whitening. Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed October 24, 2016.
Last reviewed October 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 11/19/2014

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