At-home or professional tooth whitening can help lighten stained teeth and give you a brighter smile. However, many teeth whitening treatments can cause temporary tooth sensitivity or pain, which is made that much worse when you already have sensitive teeth. Luckily, there are whitening options for sensitive teeth.
Why whitening products make tooth sensitivity worse
All whitening products contain some amount of hydrogen or carbamide peroxide. The amount varies between at-home and professional treatments, but any amount can irritate your teeth and cause either temporary or long-lasting sensitivity. Irritation occurs when the peroxide penetrates the tooth enamel to the soft layer of dentin where the nerve is located or reaches the gums. Other factors such as the concentration of peroxide, ill-fitting trays, or not using as prescribed can affect the degree and duration of sensitivity.1
Talk to your dentist before you start whitening sensitive teeth
Before you begin a whitening program, it’s important to deal with oral health problems that cause tooth sensitivity like gum disease or cavities. Thankfully, most dental health problems are treatable so you can begin a tooth whitening program once these issues have been resolved.
Visit your dentist and ask about tooth whitening for sensitive teeth. If your dentist recommends holding off whitening treatments until your other oral health issues are taken care of, be sure to follow their instructions to avoid causing any further damage to your teeth or increasing your sensitivity.2
1. Professional whitening treatment
Professional teeth whitening done by a dentist might be the best option for those with sensitive teeth. While professional whitening is the most expensive option, it allows a dentist to monitor the process and ensure your teeth remain safe throughout. They can also use gels and desensitizers to help reduce sensitivity while they whiten your teeth. In-office whitening also typically is the most effective at removing stains and is long-lasting compared to other whitening options.
You can also look into purchasing a professional whitening kit from your dentist, which typically costs less than in-office whitening.
How professional teeth whitening works
For in-office whitening, your dentist will insert a teeth retractor into your mouth to help expose the teeth everyone sees when you smile. They’ll then apply a resin or rubber material to your gums to prevent the peroxide from irritating your gums, which can cause sensitivity.
Your dentist will then apply a bleaching gel, which will remain on your teeth for between 15 and 30 minutes. In less than an hour, you can walk out of your dentist’s office with a brighter smile.
If you choose to use a professional whitening kit, your dentist will take impressions of your teeth and send them to the lab to make the teeth whitening trays. You’ll then receive the trays and bleach approved for at home use. Typically, trays are worn for about an hour a day for 2 weeks.
No matter the option you choose, be sure to follow any maintenance routine recommended by your dentist to get the most value out of the whitening treatments.
2. Porcelain or composite-resin veneers
If your teeth are severely stained, or your dentist determines that your teeth cannot handle whitening, then veneers may be the next best option. While porcelain veneers require a healthy amount of tooth enamel to place, composite-resin veneers don’t require as much, which may be a better option for those that have sensitive teeth due to decreased enamel. Your dentist can help decide which veneers are right for you.
How veneers work
For porcelain veneers, your dentist will attach custom-made shells over each individual tooth. Porcelain veneers are resistant to stains, very strong, and will match the size and shape of your natural teeth.
Composite-resin veneers are a tooth-colored material that is bonded to each tooth rather than a shell that covers the tooth. They are not as strong as porcelain veneers but are more easily repaired and typically cost less than porcelain veneers. Talk to your dentist about the different types of veneers available to you.
3. At-home whitening options
At-home tooth whitening options are the most cost-effective way you can give your smile a boost. However, many of these options can easily irritate sensitive teeth and gums, especially when not used as directed.
When choosing between whitening toothpaste, gels, strips, rinses and over-the-counter whitening trays, be sure to read the labels for warnings about sensitivity. There are many whitening products that are specially formulated to work with sensitive teeth, so look for these choices when looking for a over-the-counter whitening treatment.
How at-home teeth whitening works
Since each whitening product is different, be sure to follow the instructions for how to apply and how long you should keep it on before rinsing.
Some whitening products may cause you more discomfort than others. Test a few options to find the best choice for you. Products like whitening trays and strips may cause more irritation if your sensitivity is due to gum-related issues because the whitening gel is more likely to come in contact with your gums. However, if you have cracked or worn teeth, all whitening products may cause some irritation.
Stop using any products that cause you pain or discomfort and talk to your doctor about their recommendations if you can’t seem to find a product that works for your needs.
4. Do more to maintain your whitened smile
After you get your teeth whitened, there are steps you can take to prolong the effects of your dazing new smile:
- Brush or rinse immediately after you eat staining foods like coffee, tea, wine and tomato-based products (read our full list of surprising things that could be harming your teeth)
- Use a straw to protect your teeth from staining liquids
- Don’t use cigarettes or other tobacco products
While some foods are known for staining teeth, others can help fight off stains and keep your smile stronger. Chew your way to a brighter smile with tooth-healthy foods like apples, celery, yogurt and cheese.3
A whiter smile is possible even if you have sensitive teeth. But with all these options to compare, how do you know which one you can afford? If you have concerns about your current dental insurance coverage for procedures like tooth whitening, it is important to review your policy.