How to Get Whiter Teeth

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If your pearly whites, well, aren't--blame it on caffeine, candy, prescription drugs or aging, all of which dull the gleam. Whiten and brighten dingy teeth with high-tech treatments in your dentist's office or over-the-counter bleaches you use at home. Here's how to bring that sparkle back.

Ask your dentist if you're a good candidate for whitening, since results can vary. Yellowed teeth generally lighten well; darkened grayish or brownish teeth may not.

Try over-the-counter products, which have low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide. A dental tray and gel kit can be used for a short time each day to lighten teeth one to two shades in two weeks, at best. Whitening strips cover the six front teeth--which must be even--for similar results, and keep peroxide on teeth and off gums. Paint-on gels get similar results and cover more teeth, but can be messy to use. Hydrogen peroxide works faster than carbamide (see Step 3), but takes longer to get results and deactivates faster. These are the least-expensive treatments to use when staining reoccurs due to beverages and smoking.

Use a dentist-made tray at home twice daily for an hour for a couple of weeks, or wear it overnight. The gel's active ingredient is 10, 15 or 20 percent carbamide peroxide, which is gentler than hydrogen peroxide. Teeth could lighten several shades depending on the strength of the gel used. Higher percentages work faster but also increase the chance of teeth sensitivity. Ask your dentist for whitening products that include fluoride to reduce sensitivity. Cost: $300 to $450.

Whiten your teeth by up to 10 shades in one 60- to 90-minute session with a potent, light-activated bleaching formula of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide. Cost: $500 to $1,100.

Consider porcelain veneers or bonding if you have conditions where bleaching isn't effective, such as tetracycline or intrinsic staining. Bonding is a resin that's contoured over teeth. Veneers are thin porcelain manufactured in a laboratory. Cost: $500 to $1,500 per tooth for porcelain veneers, $150 to $300 for bonding.

Keep in mind that two to three weeks of whitening by over-the-counter products equals one week of overnight tray treatment from the dentist--and may well equal one hour of the light-activated treatments.

Tips & Warnings

  • See How to Purchase a Toothbrush.
  • The results of whitening treatments, even the costly ones, aren't permanent. Touch-ups may be required every six to 24 months.
  • If you experience severe sensitivity after using a product, let your dentist know.
  • Since whitening treatments have no effect on artificial materials such as crowns, fillings or veneers, monitor your progress closely to keep color uniform with your natural enamel.
  • Avoid restaining brightened teeth with red wine, sodas, tea, coffee or tobacco. Bonded teeth can be affected but to a lesser degree. Veneers will not be affected at all.
  • "Whitening" toothpastes contain polishing agents that improve tooth appearance by removing surface stains. This can take months to see results, if any.

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