Your smile makes an immediate visual impact on people you meet. Ask anyone what they would like to change about their smile, and chances are that many may say brighter, whiter teeth.
Even though many people want whiter teeth, they are concerned about teeth whitening costs. This is a valid concern because most dental insurance plans typically do not pay for cosmetic services—those services provided only to enhance the appearance of the teeth and that do not treat dental diseases or help improve dental health.
What causes my teeth to discolor?
Teeth become darker or yellowed for many reasons. The staining can come from external sources or from inside the tooth itself.
External stains are found on the surface of the teeth. Smoking, drinking red wine or grape juice, coffee, tea, and dark colas are common causes of external stains. While a professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist can usually remove external stains, sometimes the teeth have held the stains for so long that they become permanently embedded in the enamel.
Trauma to a tooth can cause it to discolor over time. Certain antibiotics can cause the teeth to darken from the inside1.
The cause of the stains and whether they are from external or internal sources helps to determine which type of whitening products may work best and whether you can expect a good or just a fair result.
Common types of teeth whiteners
Teeth whitening products come in basically two forms: over-the-counter products you can purchase at your local pharmacy or grocery store and in-office kits that only a dentist can provide.
Within those two forms, there are several choices.
Over-the-counter whitening products
There are a number of over-the-counter tooth whitening products, from toothpastes, to rinses, to strips, to paint-on gels. Some use trays or strips to hold the product in place. Some you brush or paint on.
Dentist-provided whitening products
Some whitening products require patients to have a prescription and supervision of a licensed dentist. These products typically contain higher concentrations of whitening chemicals than the ones available without a prescription.
Whitening products that require a dentist’s supervision typically come in two varieties.
- At-home whitening systems: Your dentist provides you with a custom-fitted tray and several tubes or bottles of whitening products, typically gels or pastes.2
- In-office whitening treatments: This type of whitening is done in the dentist’s office. They coat your teeth with a whitening agent that remains on the teeth for a prescribed amount of time. Some treatments use an activation lamp to accelerate the process. These treatments produce immediate whitening and, when you leave the office, your treatment is complete3.
Whitening products typically only work on natural tooth enamel. If you have a lot of porcelain crowns or fillings, the whitening will not change their color. Talk with your dentist before trying any whitening products to be sure that you are a suitable candidate with teeth that can have a good result.
Benefits of teeth whitening
Every day, patients request tooth whitening from their dentist or purchase whitening products from their local drug store. Bright, white teeth look natural since you are just enhancing your own teeth and not replacing them with artificial covers like veneers or crowns.
Teeth whitening is non-invasive—it does not require any drilling away of any tooth structure—and typically does not require the use of any anesthetics. Unlike crowns and veneers, whitening your natural teeth provides a subtle improvement in your appearance. Your teeth remain the same shape and size.
What are the side effects of teeth whitening?
Having your teeth whitened—whether at home or in your dental office—does have some minor drawbacks. Before starting any whitening treatments, consider these two common side effects.4
Temporary sensitivity is common with all types of whitening. Both in-office and over-the-counter products produce some sensitivity within a few days of the start of treatments. It usually resolves on its own within a few days after treatment stops.
Some dentists prescribe special kinds of toothpaste or gels to help combat sensitivity. Others may apply a desensitizing agent to your teeth before starting treatment. These may or may not help. Rest assured, however, that the sensitivity will likely go away soon after your whitening treatments are complete.
Certain whitening products use peroxide-based gels, which can irritate the gums. Sometimes the trays—especially the over-the-counter types that are not custom fitted by a dentist—rub against the gums, causing some temporary soreness. If your custom tray is irritating your gums, your dentist can help adjust it for a better fit.
Like the sensitivity, any gum irritations from the gels or trays typically resolves quickly when treatment ends.
One common factor in on-going side effects from teeth whitening is the overuse of the products. Do not wear the trays or use strips, pastes, or gels longer than recommended. Always follow the directions on the label or the instructions from your dentist when using these products. Overuse of whiteners can help damage the enamel and the gums.5
What does teeth whitening by a dentist cost?
In-office whitening typically can be quite expensive. Even the over-the-counter products can add up to almost as much as the in-office treatments when you consider the number of kits you typically must buy to achieve the same results.
The average fee for one arch of in-office bleaching is approximately $287. Double that to $574 to have both the upper and the lower arch of teeth whitened in a dental office. For take-home trays and gels or pastes, the national average cost was approximately $250 per arch or $500 for both.6
While in-office whitening might cost more, the results are typically immediate. The take-home systems might be a bit less expensive, but they typically take more time to provide the same results.
When comparing costs of dentist-provided whitening treatments with the ones you can purchase without a prescription, remember that, to are likely to get the same results, you might have to purchase several kits and continue treatments over many months. While for example, if a kit costs around $25, if you must purchase 20 of them to get your teeth white, you could have gotten the same results from a dentist-provided kit purchased only once.
Is teeth whitening covered by insurance?
Typically, insurance companies consider teeth whitening a cosmetic procedure, which means the only reason for having the treatment is to improve your appearance. Cosmetic procedures do not treat or prevent any type of dental disease or condition.
Having your teeth whitened is a fantastic way to boost your self-esteem, make a positive impression at job interviews, and improve your appearance. Safe and effective products are available with and without a dentist’s prescription. You can find plenty of options to fit your lifestyle and budget.
Although most insurance plans do not provide benefits for whitening, dental insurance does cover regular dental exams and cleanings, which can help you avoid needing teeth whitening. In addition to seeing the dentist, daily brushing, flossing, eating a balanced diet, can help you keep your teeth healthy and stain-free.
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This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.