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Is Teeth Whitening Safe?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Nothing instills confidence like a million-dollar smile. When your pearly whites shine, you're ready to brighten any room. Yet, everything from your morning coffee to your evening glass of wine threatens to stain your beloved teeth. As you begin to research your teeth whitening options, you may wonder: Is whitening your teeth bad?

Can Teeth Whitening Hurt Your Teeth?

Teeth whitening methods have been implemented and evaluated for decades. Millions of people use teeth whitening products. In fact, cosmetic teeth bleaching is forecasted to be a $3.8 billion global industry by 2021. The American Dental Association (ADA) states that safe and effective teeth whitening options are available for both in-office and at-home applications and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. However, several minor side effects are sometimes associated with teeth whitening. These include gum irritation, tooth sensitivity, and impact on dental restorations.

Gum Irritation

Hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide are the most common active ingredients for teeth whitening products. Treatments prescribed by your dentist — whether that's an in-office procedure or take-home whitening trays — contain higher levels of these bleaching agents. If the bleach were to touch your gums, it could cause irritation. However, your dentist takes extra precautions to protect your gum tissue. During in-office procedures, a protective gel will be used to shield your gums from the bleaching agent. Similarly, at-home trays are customized to fit your teeth, so as little whitening gel touches your gums as possible. If you still experience any issues, the irritation should heal on its own.

Tooth Sensitivity

Tooth sensitivity is another common side effect of all forms of teeth bleaching. According to the ADA, sensitivity is possibly due to the pulp's inflammation from peroxide exposure during the treatment. Many factors may influence the severity of the sensitivity, including the peroxide concentration, the presence of restorations, or even the intensity of light use. The sensitivity may resolve on its own, but if not, you can try:

  • Brushing with toothpaste made for sensitive teeth
  • Wearing the strips or trays for a shorter time
  • Asking your dentist for a fluoride product to help remineralize teeth
  • Pausing the whitening process for several days to allow teeth to adapt

Effects on Dental Restorations

Some research suggests that whitening treatments may have adverse effects on dental restorations. However, these effects depend on the type of material used. The peroxide may accelerate the amount of mercury leached from dental amalgam, depending on the concentration of peroxide used, time of application, and age of the dental amalgam. However, the concentration of mercury leached is still below a level associated with possible health concerns. Plus, other materials — like the ones used for crowns and implants — show the best resistance to peroxide. If you're concerned about the effects of whitening treatments on your dental restorations, talk to your dentist about the best option.

How to Safely Whiten Teeth

If you are interested in taking the next steps toward a whiter smile, follow these steps to safely use teeth whitening products.

Step One: Talk to your dentist. Your dentist can evaluate your tooth health and address any issues — like cavities or gum disease — before you start a whitening protocol. They also can advise on the best whitening treatment and answer any of your questions.

Step Two: Look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance. If you are concerned about the safety of a product, look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance. The ADA has reviewed independent studies and approved many whitening toothpastes and some whitening strips for safety and effectiveness.

Step Three: Follow product instructions. Each product comes with a unique set of instructions for the duration and frequency of use. Overuse or incorrect use of the product may put you at higher risk for side effects like gum irritation or tooth sensitivity.

Is teeth whitening safe? Yes, it can be. Simply handle your whitening protocol like any medical treatment — listen to your dentist, follow instructions, and watch for unwanted side effects. Then, you can safely and effectively whiten your teeth and brighten your smile.