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Health & Fitness

How to get a brighter smile without breaking the bank

Brush up on these tips and products to whiten your teeth at home.

Woman with a bright white smile looking in bathroom mirror Credit: Getty Images / LaylaBird

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These days, most of the world sees us from the shoulders up, whether it’s a Zoom meeting with colleagues or a FaceTime happy hour with friends. While you may be happy to get away with wearing sweatpants, you may be thinking about leaving a brighter impression with your smile.

The cost of an in-office procedure can vary depending on where you live, but according to the American Dental Association's 2020 Survey of Dental Fees, the average whitening treatment is just under $300 and can reach up to almost double that. Even the less expensive option, undertaking an external bleaching application at home, runs from $108 to $495 because of the materials and fabrication of custom trays.

Cue the trip to your local pharmacy or surfing the internet, where there are more products than ever on the market claiming to whiten your teeth. You may be wondering if they’re worth your money. Not only that, but do they actually work, and could they potentially harm your teeth in the process?

We spoke to Dr. Ada Cooper, DMD, a dentist based in New York City and spokesperson for the ADA, on what to keep in mind when it comes to touching up your pearly whites.

Regular brushing and flossing is the first step toward a brighter smile

Couple brushing teeth in front of bathroom mirror
Credit: Getty Images / bernardbodo

Keeping up with your dental hygiene is the best way to maintain a bright smile.

It may seem obvious, but simply taking care of your teeth is the best everyday way to keep your smile bright and healthy, according to Dr. Cooper. It doesn’t matter whether you use a manual or electric toothbrush, as long as you’re using it and brushing your teeth effectively every day.

And don’t forget about flossing. You might even consider this Waterpik Whitening Water Flosser, which offers a more advanced solution to traditional thread.

Similarly, a standard dental cleaning is all some patients need to get rid of certain stains and discolorations, so don’t skimp on your regular dental visits, either.

“Whitening products aren't meant to clean your teeth—they don't remove plaque or bacteria that can cause tooth decay, and they don’t treat tooth decay that causes discoloration,” Dr. Cooper explains. “Whitening isn't a substitute for the basics, like brushing or flossing and getting the dental care that you need.”

Consult with your dentist before choosing a whitening treatment

Dentist examining patient in dental office chair
Credit: Getty Images / guvendemir

Chat with your dentist to see if an at-home teeth whitening treatment is right for you.

Not all teeth stains and discolorations are created equal, Dr. Cooper says. A dental cleaning can remove surface stains, even if they’re on crowns and fillings. They can also be minimized by using an over-the-counter product with the ADA Seal of Acceptance, such as Tom’s of Maine Simply White Clean Mint Toothpaste.

Keep in mind that yellow staining tends to whiten better than gray-colored stains, and if your discoloration is caused by aging, then in-office whitening products are probably going to be most effective, she says.

Such procedures may entail your dentist applying a protective gel to your gums and other tissues before applying a whitening material to your teeth, possibly activating the material with a light. Depending on your starting shade, your smile may be transformed within an hour or two. The ADA-approved Colgate Optic White Toothpaste, on the other hand, requires regular use over six weeks to see results, according to the brand.

Your dentist might also give you the option to do an at-home bleaching technique. They’ll make a custom whitening tray and supply the material to apply at home yourself over the course of a couple of weeks.

“The method you choose should depend on what your priorities and preferences are—some patients may not be comfortable wearing or sleeping with at-home trays, while others might be too prone to tooth sensitivity for the in-office treatment,” Dr. Cooper says.

Don’t try to whiten your teeth with household remedies

Arm & Hammer baking soda package on table
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

While many over-the-counter whitening products include baking soda, the ingredient is too harsh to apply directly on teeth.

When you browse your local pharmacy’s shelves, you’ll notice that many over-the-counter whitening products contain hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide as the active ingredients or bleaching agents, including the ever-popular and ADA-approved Crest 3D White Whitestrips.

Some may even tout other familiar ingredients, like baking soda and charcoal, right on the front of the packaging, Dr. Cooper says.

While you may be tempted to go straight to the source, most products use these ingredients in smaller, safe amounts. You should avoid DIY remedies that involve applying mild abrasives directly to your teeth, Dr. Cooper says, and similarly, don’t trust anything you may have heard about sucking on citrus fruits or applying apple cider vinegar to your teeth. Doing so can increase sensitivity and actually cause more yellow teeth than white, she says.

“Not only is there no evidence that they can help whiten your teeth, but these acidic materials can actually destroy tooth enamel and damage your gums,” she says. “Fruit is certainly a great nutritional choice, but you’re putting your teeth’s health at risk when you expose them to that acid for a prolonged period of time.”

Look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance when choosing an over-the-counter product

Box of Crest Whitestrips on green background
Credit: Crest

Look for the ADA seal on over-the-counter whitening products, like Crest 3D White Professional Effects Whitestrips.

According to Dr. Cooper, the number-one thing you should look for when choosing an at-home whitening toothpaste or other product is the ADA Seal of Acceptance.

When you search the ADA’s database, you may notice that there aren’t as many options as you’d expect. It’s worth noting that the approval process requires application and licensing fees, meaning not all brands may submit their products. On the other hand, you know the products you find in there are safe and effective.

Even with this stamp of approval, it’s still important to first consult your dentist for their medical advice, because the concentration of the whitening agent in over-the-counter products is going to be lower than treatments that your dentist can provide.

This means that even if you use a product correctly, the result may not be as noticeable as you would like if your level of stains and discoloration merit an in-office procedure. Talk to your dentist to ensure that you're going to get the result you really want with the method you choose.

Make sure you’re using products correctly, and be wary of risks

Woman reading over-the-counter teeth whitening product label at pharmacy
Credit: Getty Images / LumiNola

When choosing an over-the-counter tooth whitening product, look for the ADA Seal of Approval.

It’s key to follow the instructions on the product you choose, as any whitening product that is overused can damage the tooth and your gums, Dr. Cooper says. One of the side effects that patients often experience from tooth whitening is dental sensitivity. Although it may go away after you stop whitening, you never know if that sensitivity is the side effect of the whitening product or if it’s caused by something else.

“Fractured teeth, cavities, gum disease, exposed roots can all cause tooth sensitivity,” Dr. Cooper says. “Make sure that if you're feeling those things, that you're able to rule out all of these other causes, and if your dentist can't find any other cause of the sensitivity, they’ll probably recommend that you decrease the frequency of whitening.”

If this sounds like you and you prefer an at-home treatment, consider the Crest 3D Whitestrips Sensitive Teeth Whitening Kit. According to the instructions, you’re in the clear to talk and drink water while you’re wearing the strips.

Lastly, your health habits matter, too

Two cups of coffee on orange striped background
Credit: Getty Images / Eshima

To avoid staining, rinse your mouth after drinking coffee, red wine, soda, and seltzer.

There’s definitely truth to claims that things like coffee, red wine, soda, and dark berries can contribute to teeth staining, Dr. Cooper says.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up the things you enjoy in the pursuit of whiter teeth—just be sure to rinse your mouth out after consuming them and continue to brush daily to reduce the chance that they’ll affect your teeth.

Smoking and chewing tobacco can cause stains, too, and in this case, Dr. Cooper advises that you work to quit entirely, since the health risks go beyond affecting your smile.

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