How to Choose an At-Home Teeth Whitening System That Works

While we might think of teeth whitening as a recent phenomenon, the reality is that humans have been trying to keep their teeth healthier and whiter since time immemorial. This includes the use of chewing sticks, pulverized pumice and wine vinegar toothpaste, animal hair toothbrushes, and more.

Today however, with huge advances in our understanding of proper oral hygiene and technology, teeth whitening products and services represent a behemoth of an industry that rakes in more than $11 billion (yes, you read that right!) annually. On top of this, these products seem to work well, since more than 63% of customers claim to have experienced a noticeable difference after using an at-home whitening product.

Because of all this, you might be thinking about trying an at-home whitening system, but remain uneasy about spending your hard-earned money on something that doesn’t work—or even worse—on a product that causes more harm than good.

Here at HighYa, our mission is to help make you a more informed consumer, so in this article, we’ll help you learn how at-home teeth whitening products work, the different systems available, which systems might be better for you, as well as potential drawbacks and pitfalls to be wary of.

To begin, let’s start with the basics: the anatomy of your teeth.

The Anatomy of Your Teeth

Although your teeth may seem simple from the outside, the fact of the matter is that they are fairly complex structures made up of 4 primary components.

The outermost white section of your teeth is formed from enamel, which is a very hard surface composed of a mineral substance that works as the first line of defense against tooth decay, and is the portion of your teeth that whiteners directly interact with. In fact, your teeth enamel is even stronger than bone, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t impervious to damage and discoloration, which we’ll talk more about in the next section.

Located just underneath enamel is a slightly more elastic tissue called dentin, which supports the enamel above it and “is made up of microscopic passages called dentinal tubules. These tubules transmit pain stimuli and nutrition throughout this layer of the tooth.” Compared to enamel, dentin has a darker, yellowish appearance, which can cause your teeth to become discolored as your enamel thins. Again, we’ll come back to this later.

A cross section of the different parts of a tooth.A cross section of the different parts of a tooth. IMAGE CREDIT: britannica.com.

Finally, there is cementum and pulp. Cementum is shown in the image above as a thin, light blue line, which contains fibers that anchor the tooth to your jaw bone. On the other hand, pulp is located in the center of your teeth, which is “composed of blood vessels, lymph vessels, connective tissue, nerve tissue and cells called odontoblasts, which are able to produce dentin.”

Now that you know more about the different parts of your teeth, as well as where stains occur, let’s take a closer look at common causes of stains.

What Causes Teeth Stains?

Despite how well the different parts of your teeth work and the different functions they perform, their inherent design makes them especially sensitive to staining. This can be caused by myriad factors, including:

Certain Foods & Drinks – Frequently eating foods with deep colors caused by chromagens, or those with especially high acidity, sweetness, and starchiness, such as wine, tea, cola, sports drinks, and berries, can have a big impact on the whiteness of your smile.

Tobacco Use – Tobacco isn’t just bad for your lungs and throat (and your overall life expectancy), but it’s also bad for tooth discoloration, as the nicotine and tar it contains tends to stain teeth very quickly.

Poor/Improper Dental Hygiene – Do you think it’s annoying when your dentist always asks if you’ve been brushing and flossing your teeth twice daily? Maybe, but the reality is that proper dental hygiene goes a long way toward preventing stains and discoloration by removing food debris and preventing the buildup of plaque.

Age & Genetics – As you age, the outer layer of the enamel on your teeth progressively becomes thinner, which increasingly shows the natural color of the dentin located underneath. On top of this, your genetics can determine the brightness and thickness of your enamel, which directly dictates how white your teeth appear.

Disease, Medication, & Trauma – Certain diseases and the medications used to treat them (especially certain types of radiation, as well as antibiotics such as tetracycline and doxycycline) can affect the enamel and dentin on your teeth and lead to discoloration. In addition, damaging your enamel in some way (such as from blunt force) can also lead to discoloration.

Excessive Fluoride – Although a certain amount of fluoride can prevent your teeth from staining, an excessive amount (whether present naturally or artificially added to your water supply) can actually promote teeth discoloration.

How Stains Form on the Enamel

Now, let’s bring together everything we’ve learned up to this point.

How the Structure of Enamel Causes Stains

As we mentioned above, enamel makes up the outer portion of your teeth. But although enamel appears smooth from our vantage point, it’s actually filled with “microscopic pits and ridges that can hold particles of food and drink.”

This is because enamel is formed from very small structures called rods and crystals, and when microscopic spaces form between these structures, they become known as pores. And it’s these pores that allow “fluid movement and diffusion to occur,” but also provide the opportunity for staining.

Intrinsic Stains vs. Extrinsic Stains

With this said, there are 2 types of stains that occur: Extrinsic stains, which “are stains on the surfaces of teeth,” and intrinsic stains, which have made their way through the enamel’s pores and occur “on the inside of the tooth, within its inner layers, in the dentin or in the pulp area.”

As you might imagine, extrinsic stains are generally caused by lifestyle choices, such as eating certain foods or partaking in tobacco, while intrinsic stains are caused by other factors, such as medications, medical treatments, and trauma.

Enter At-Home Teeth Whiteners

Based on the above factors, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s perfectly normal for a person’s teeth to darken over time. As such, if you’ve recently noticed that the color of your teeth isn’t your ideal shade, you shouldn’t immediately assume that you’ve done something wrong, or that you’re not taking care of your teeth properly. After all, there are many factors beyond your control that can cause staining and discoloration.

Regardless, if you’re looking for a brighter smile, one of the first options you explored might have been an at-home teeth whitening kit, since they’re widely available at just about any pharmacy, grocery store, or big box retailer near you. In fact, you can even purchase off-brand at-home teeth whitening kits online, without leaving your couch (more about this in a moment).

But when it comes time to purchase one of these kits, you might become confused by the dizzying array of options. So to help clear up any confusion, let’s take a closer look at how each of them works.

Different At-Home Teeth Whitening Methods

Strips, gels, and abrasives, oh my! Although all teeth whitening methods are aimed at removing stains and providing you with a brighter smile, not all of them accomplish this in the same way. As such, let’s break everything down in a simple and straightforward manner.

The Role of Hydrogen Peroxide

First, it’s important to outline that regardless of the delivery method, most at-home whitening kits use carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide as their active ingredients. These work to bleach your teeth (although most contain no actual bleach) by getting “down into the tooth enamel and set[ting] off a chemical reaction (specifically, an oxidation reaction) that breaks apart the staining compounds” and lifts them away.

Which is Better: Carbamide Peroxide or Hydrogen Peroxide?

Now, you might be asking yourself, “is one type of peroxide better than another?” Good question.

As it turns out, carbamide peroxide “breaks down into hydrogen peroxide and urea, with hydrogen peroxide being the active bleaching agent. A bleaching product containing 10 percent carbamide peroxide yields approximately 3.5 percent hydrogen peroxide.” In other words, carbamide peroxide is simply a weaker form of hydrogen peroxide, with both performing the same essential function, but at different strengths.

Despite these differences in strength, carbamide and hydrogen peroxide generally produce “no significant difference … with regard to tooth lightness” when used in at-home teeth whitening kits.

Regardless of how much they lighten your teeth, the results for at-home whitening treatments generally only last about a month, after which you’ll need to start the process again.

Whitening Gels & Strips

Whitening gels use peroxide-based solutions that are applied directly to the teeth using a small brush, while strips are thin, transparent pieces of material that are “stuck” to the teeth. In either instance, the gel or strip is generally applied 1-2 times daily for 30 minutes over the course of 2 weeks.

Pros:

  • One of the least expensive options, often ranging between $10 and $50.
  • Can be used completely in the comfort of your own home.
  • Quick, easy, and relatively efficient.

Cons:

  • Only lightens 1-2 shades (more with continued use, which can quickly become expensive).
  • You must keep your gums away from your teeth while the gel is applied, which not only makes you look funny, but may be bothersome (and uncomfortable) for some users.
  • Whitening strips have a reputation for not sticking well, which could cause them to fall off at inopportune times and reduce the effectiveness.

Whitening Trays

Similar to gels and strips, whitening trays also use a peroxide-based solution to lighten teeth. With trays however, the solution is applied to a mouth guard-like device that has been pre-fitted to match the arrangement of your teeth, which is then inserted into the mouth and worn for a couple hours per day.

Whitening trays can be purchased over the counter (similar to gels and strips), or you can visit your dentist and have ultra-custom trays fitted.

Pros:

  • Whitening trays offer the ability to evenly apply peroxide gel to all of your teeth simultaneously, providing uniform results.
  • Whitening trays are generally worn for longer periods of time than gels or strips, which can provide better results.
  • Custom-made trays can help you avoid teeth and gum sensitivity caused by the bleaching agent.

Cons:

  • One of the more expensive options, often ranging between $130 and $600+.
  • Until you get used to the process, whitening gel can spill out of the tray and into your mouth during application, which can increase tooth and gum sensitivity.
  • Because whitening trays are generally worn for longer periods of time (as well as their higher price), there is a greater level of commitment.
  • Some people find the mouth trays bulky and uncomfortable; especially over-the-counter options.

Whitening Toothpastes

In contrast to gels, strips, and trays, whitening toothpastes contain mild abrasives (and sometimes a less powerful peroxide-based ingredient) that “effectively polish the teeth or bind to stains and help pull them off the tooth surface.”

Pros:

  • One of the least expensive options, often ranging between $5 and $15.
  • Ideal for fresh teeth stains that may not require the same level of whitening power as older stains.

Cons:

  • One of the least effective at-home whitening options, since the abrasives only work while you’re brushing, and the whitening agent (if any) isn’t in contact with your teeth as long as other options.

Whitening Rinses

As the name implies, whitening rinses contain peroxide-based ingredients that penetrate stains, while also reducing plaque and washing away food debris. 

Pros:

  • Another inexpensive whitening option, generally ranging between $5 and $10.
  • Can be used in about a minute, twice daily.

Cons:

  • Perhaps the least effective teeth whitening method, because like with toothpaste, the rinse is only in contact with your teeth for a short period of time.

Not All At-Home Whitening Systems are Created Equal

It’s important here to note that, while there may not be a huge difference in how most at-home systems whiten your teeth, there can be a great deal of difference in the quality of the companies behind them.

In other words, if you purchase a whitening product from a well-established company at a local retailer, you can be reasonably sure that you’re getting a quality product at a decent price.

However, when exploring your options online, you may come across several off-brand companies such as Whitening Coach, Go Smile, Smile Pro Direct, and many others. These companies claim to provide the same level of whitening that you’ll find in other similar products, but often state that you’ll experience better results, faster.

Regardless of their claims, these companies tend to use underhanded tactics to rack up as many charges as possible after your order, including offering their kits as part of a “free” trial, and/or signing you up for recurring autoship programs. In fact, reading through the product reviews noted above (or through this 2009 Wired article) will reveal just how many dissatisfied customers these companies have engendered.

Because of these concerns, if and when you’re ready to try an at-home teeth whitening kit, we might recommend exploring local options before venturing online.

Is There a Difference Between At-Home & In-Office Teeth Whitening?

Based on all of this information, you may have realized that you need a faster and more effective way to whiten your teeth than at-home methods, and wondered if you can obtain better results with an in-office session at your dentist’s office. So, can you get better whitening results from your dentist? The short answer? Probably.

This is because your dentist will often use gels that contain higher peroxide levels, since they can monitor the process directly in their office. As such, in-office whitening often provides faster, more pronounced results.

On top of this, in-office whitening is often ideal for those with tooth or gum sensitivity, since these factors are “more controllable today due to thicker peroxide gels (that don't soak into the teeth as much as previous gels) and the use of desensitizers such as potassium nitrate and fluoride.”

However, in-office whitening visits will often be your most expensive option, running in the neighborhood of $600, and is rarely covered by insurance.

At-Home Teeth Whitening Side Effects

Although most customers will experience little to no side effects from using at-home whitening products, this may not be the case for you.

This is because, the most commonly reported side effects for at-home teeth whitening revolve around tooth sensitivity, which “is caused by “the exposure of the dentin layer during the whitening process,” and gum irritation, which “may occur if the whitening solution is exposed to the gum tissue during the whitening process.”

In either instance though, the sensitivity and/or irritation usually subside soon after the whitening agent is removed.

Also, keep in mind that carbamide and hydrogen peroxide have about the same number of instances of side effects between them, although their strength certainly plays a role in the severity of the side effects. As such, you may experience more pronounced side effects if you choose an in-office option versus an at-home one.

Finally, although it’s easy to think that the abrasives contained in whitening toothpastes will cause enamel erosion, and might lead to more tooth sensitivity than standard toothpastes. However, this typically isn’t the case.

Who Shouldn’t Use At-Home Teeth Whitening?

While at-home teeth whitening systems are safe for the vast majority of customers, there are several important instances when they may not be an ideal solution. According to Crest.com, this includes those who:

  • Are allergic to peroxide-based ingredients.
  • Have dental health problems such as “periodontal disease, cavities, exposed roots, or worn enamel.”
  • Have “restorative dental work such as bridges, bonding, crowns, or veneers,” and those with braces.

Important note: Finally, because at-home teeth whitening systems only address surface stains on the enamel, they won’t work if your discoloration is due to thin enamel showing the dentin underneath, or due to intrinsic staining.

As with anything else, it’s always a good idea to speak with your dentist about any teeth whitening options you’re exploring, as they’ll be able to provide personalized feedback based on your specific diagnosis.

Alternative At-Home Teeth Whitening Methods

Last, but certainly not least, we’d be remiss if we didn’t let you know that there are hundreds of different DIY at-home teeth whitening methods you can try out before committing to a purchase. However, nearly all of these options will be less effective than using whitening gels, strips, or trays.

This includes using a baking soda and lemon juice paste, banana peels, oil pulling, apple cider vinegar, and many more. To explore other options, we’d recommend typing the phrase “DIY whitening tips” or “at-home teeth whitening methods” into your favorite search engine.

What’s Your Experience with At-Home Teeth Whitening Methods?

What it all comes down to is this: As long as you keep your expectations realistic and speak with your dentist about any conditions you’re experiencing, at-home teeth whitening products can give you a brighter smile while providing a solid bang for your buck.

But here at HighYa, we also realize that everyone is different. As such, let’s hear about your experiences with at-home whitening products! Were you satisfied with the results? Do you recommend one product over another? If so, why?

Whatever it is, we want to hear about it, so be sure to leave your comment below!


Derek Lakin

Senior Editor at HighYa. With more than a decade of experience as a copywriter, Derek takes a detail-oriented, step-by-step approach to helping you shop smarter. Whether it’s nutritional supplements or new scams, he believes an informed consumer is a happy customer. Connect with him on Twitter: @DALwrites


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