Since tooth whitening sprang onto the public radar in the1980’s, it’s become one of the most popular and affordable ways to improve your smile. With so many products flooding the market, how do you know what’s right for you? The first step to making any decision is understanding your choices.


What is tooth whitening?


Tooth whitening or bleaching is any process that will make the teeth appear whiter. This includes everything from whitening toothpastes to remove surface stain to laser bleaching. There’s a lot out there! We will break the products into two main categories: those that contain hydrogen peroxide and those that do not.


Whitening products without peroxide


Products such as some whitening toothpastes do not contain a solution of hydrogen peroxide. (Read the label). They rely on the removal of surface stain to brighten your teeth. Your tooth structure is not actually changing color, it just appears lighter due to stain removal. We won’t spend much time here, as these products are not truly whitening your teeth.


Whitening products that contain peroxide


Hydrogen peroxide is the magic bullet. All tooth “bleach” contains a form of hydrogen peroxide. Sometimes you will see Carbamide peroxide on the ingredient list, but Carbamide peroxide turns into hydrogen peroxide and urea, and it is the peroxide that is responsible for whitening your teeth.


Since we know that it is the hydrogen peroxide that gets the whitening done, we can now look at the other factors that affect tooth whitening.


  • Delivery system – How is the peroxide applied to the tooth
  • Concentration of Peroxide – Products available through dentist have higher concentration
  • Duration of Treatment – length of time the peroxide stays on tooth
  • Frequency of application – how often the peroxide needs to be applied


What are the different Delivery Systems?

Procedures available only through a dentist


  • In-office bleach – a procedure that is performed in the dental office where a barrier is applied to safeguard the oral tissues and a high concentration of bleach is applied to the teeth. Sometimes this procedure is accompanied by a light or laser, but it is still the peroxide doing the work.


PROS: Fast results, short chair time

CONS: Can cause sensitivity, may need to be used in conjunction with trays, more costly


  • Custom bleaching trays – a procedure is performed in the office to make custom trays for your teeth. The office will then dispense bleach in the concentration that is recommended for you and the trays are worn at home.


PROS: Trays are reusable and durable making maintenance of bleaching easy, most choice in concentration of bleach.

CONS: Can cause sensitivity and ill fitting trays may cause painful gums,  more costly


  • Disposable bleaching trays – These trays are not custom fit, but deliver the bleach to your teeth in a similar way. The concentration is usually lower than bleach for a custom tray.


PROS: Relatively inexpensive

CONS: Can be messy, can be uncomfortable, one time use


Over the Counter Products


  • Whitening Strips – thin strips are applied to upper and lower teeth.


PROS: Easy to use, affordable, effective.

CONS: Results can take a long time to see.


  • Paint on gels and Paint pens – gel applied to surface of tooth


PROS: Easy to use, affordable.

CONS: Duration of application difficult to control. Results slow.


Is Bleaching Your Teeth Safe?


Whitening your teeth has been shown to be safe for most people. The American Dental Association recommends an evaluation by your dentist before choosing any method to whiten your teeth.


  • Bleaching may mask underlying conditions
  • Some dark stain may need treatment other than bleaching
  • Fillings and crowns will not lighten


Pregnant women may want to hold off on tooth whitening. Children should wait until the permanent teeth are erupted before bleaching.


The most common side effect is tooth and gum sensitivity. You can combat this by using a toothpaste made for sensitivity and taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen during treatment. Keeping the bleach off your tissue to prevent tender gums is easier to do in the controlled environment of a dental office.


Enjoy a Whiter Smile!


After you talk to your dentist about what system is right for you, have fun sprucing up your pearly whites! Tooth whitening is truly a small investment for a killer smile.