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Is teeth whitening safe?

Is teeth whitening safe header woman looking at veneers

Are teeth whitening treatments safe to use? We find out

Teeth whitening continues to rise in popularity but, given the risks of whitening products and procedures, can teeth whitening ever be considered safe?

Brushing regularly with an electric toothbrush and flossing can go a long way to keeping your teeth white. However, for a whiter, brighter grin you may be thinking about teeth whitening.

Whether you are considering paying for a professional treatment or are shopping around for at-home kits, it will pay to ‘brush up’ on whether teeth whitening works and if it’s safe to proceed with. Teeth whitening can be expensive, may be ineffective and has the potential to lead to poor oral health and painfully sensitive teeth and gums. In any case, be sure to read our guide before undergoing any such treatments.

What is teeth whitening?

Teeth are rarely bright white naturally and, over time, staining can only worsen their appearance, making teeth whitening treatments incredibly tempting for anyone longing for a celebrity smile. Teeth whitening is highly regulated in the UK, and any products or treatments you might find here are unlikely to take your natural teeth to a brilliant shine, but it is possible to lighten and brighten them without resorting to a trip to Turkey. Any whitening effects are not permanent and staining will occur more quickly with poor plaque control or if you smoke or consume a lot of tea, coffee or red wine.

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What options are there for teeth whitening?

Anna Peterson, Oral-B dental professional, dental therapist and member of the Oral B Global Dental Hygiene Advisory and Advocacy Board, says, “Tooth whitening has a lot of myths around whether it is safe or not. I think this is because if done illegally (not by a dental professional), it can be unsafe.”

There are several, legal, methods of teeth whitening:

  • Treatment by a dental professional at their surgery – expect to pay £500-1,000+
  • At-home treatment given by a dental professional – expect to pay £300-600
  • At-home whitening treatments – expect to pay from £10-100+

What teeth whitening treatments are available from a dentist?

Visiting a dentist is the safest and best way to whiten teeth. Registered dental professionals can offer treatments at their surgeries that whiten teeth using laser-activated bleach. This is by far the most effective teeth whitening treatment currently on the market, though it’s also the most costly. You should expect to pay up to £1,000 and may have to attend several sessions.

A dentist may also be able to offer an at-home treatment. They will provide you with a dental tray – personalised using a mould of your teeth – that you use to apply a prescribed bleaching gel to your teeth. This is still costly, but there are often deals to be had for around £300. Our advice is to shop around and try to speak to people who have had the same treatment.

Whitening treatments are generally classed as cosmetic procedures so, even if the treatment is carried out at your usual NHS surgery, you will likely still need to pay for it privately.

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Who can perform whitening treatments?

Do not be tempted to use salons offering whitening treatments. Not only are these illegal but the chemicals used in the treatments can be harmful in unqualified hands. The official guidance from the NHS says whitening treatments should only be carried out by a dentist registered with the General Dental Council, or by a similarly registered dental hygienist or dental therapist while under the advice and prescription of a dentist.

Anna Peterson also told us, “The second reason to see a dental professional for tooth whitening is that it will actually work. Most over-the-counter products will not whiten teeth due to not containing a high enough percentage of hydrogen peroxide/carbamide peroxide. We can also monitor the progress and adapt it for the patient.”

Check to see if your dentist is registered with the General Dental Council here.

Who can undergo teeth whitening treatments?

“Tooth whitening should not be carried out if the patient doesn’t have a healthy oral cavity,” explains Anna. “Dentist Care Professionals (DCPs) are trained to identify dental issues, whereas a non-dental professional is not.”

Your suitability also depends on what kind of teeth you hope to whiten: “It’s important to be aware that crowns, veneers and composite restorations will not whiten.”

If you have sensitive teeth then this can be an added worry – you can always check out our longer explainer on stopping sensitive teeth pain – however, Anna says, “While some patients will get sensitivity when whitening teeth, it won’t be permanent and can always be managed during the whitening treatment by your dental professional. Interestingly it doesn’t tend to be patients that already have sensitivity that experience sensitivity with whitening.”

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What happens during dental whitening treatments?

Dr Nyree Whitley, Chief Clinical Officer at mydentist, says, “Your dentist will invite you to an appointment to discuss the results that you want and find the best treatment plan for you.”

Laser treatments are usually carried out in-house at the dental surgery, and your dentist will perform the procedure themselves. The treatment takes around an hour and should be pain-free.

If using gel whitening, Nyree explains: “Your dentist will take an impression or scan of your teeth to make a mouthguard and explain how to use it with a whitening gel. You will be able to safely take the gel and mouthguard away with you to apply the treatment at home.”

What at-home whitening treatments are available?

There is a whole host of at-home whitening products and kits that you can buy, from whitening strips to dental trays, pens and whitening toothpastes. However, you should still consult your dentist before using a whitening kit at home – teeth whitening is not suitable for everyone, depending on sensitivities, gum health and whether you have crowns, fillings, dentures or veneers.

Dr Whitley warns: “Some home whitening products contain high levels of peroxide which can cause long-term damage to enamel and actually make your teeth more discoloured, or [cause] burns or blisters on your gums.”

Anna also cautioned against whitening kits that use trays that haven’t been moulded by a dentist: “If trays do not fit then you can bleach the gum which can be painful and unsightly. On top of this, the gel will not effectively whiten teeth if it doesn’t touch them.”

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How to keep teeth white

If you’ve already splashed out on expensive whitening treatments or products then it’s important to recognise that the effects are only temporary and that maintaining any whiteness requires practising good oral health.

As Anna advises, “To keep your teeth white, brush twice a day with an electric toothbrush.”

We tested the Oral-B iO Series 6 and found it delivered a “fantastic clean” and could “get the trickiest teeth feeling super-fresh and plaque-free”.

It is also important to use toothpaste with the appropriate level of fluoride, with Anna recommending 1,450ppm (parts per million) fluoride for adults. Check out our roundup of the best toothpastes for protection, whitening, sensitivity and gum health.

You should also clean between your teeth daily with floss, interdental brushes or a water flosser. Not sure about water flossing? Read our guide to using a water flosser for more information.

Preventing staining and discolouration

Prevention is always better than a cure so, to help keep your teeth sparkling, try to avoid some of the worst culprits for staining.

Nyree says, “One way to reduce discolouration is to cut down on foods and drinks such as tea, coffee, red wine, fizzy drinks, curry and soy sauce, or to enjoy them in moderation and make small modifications such as drinking your cold and fizzy drinks through a straw to lower the chances of them staining your teeth.”

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