Whether preparing for a job interview or wedding, a white smile is often a confidence booster if you’re looking to stand out and make a positive impression. According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 48% of adult respondents¹ said that a smile was the most memorable feature after first meeting someone.
While many people are interested in having a whiter smile, some may be concerned about the cost. But teeth whitening doesn’t have to be expensive; there are ways to get whiter, brighter teeth no matter your budget — ranging from low-cost over-the-counter options to high-end services offered by dentists.
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How does teeth whitening work?
Teeth-whitening products contain varying amounts of hydrogen peroxide² or carbamide peroxide, which are the main ingredients that whiten teeth. The amount contained within the whitening product is a main factor in how quickly and effectively whitening will occur.
Bleaching products can be purchased over-the-counter or from the dentist, or may be administered by the dentist as an in-office treatment. Over-the-counter bleaching products can include whitening strips or gels painted directly on teeth or delivered in trays. Products available through dentists include gels delivered in custom-made trays, either intended for at-home use or applied as an in-office treatment.
Though at-home, over the counter options don’t provide the immediate and noticeable effect that professional services do, they can make a difference at a more affordable rate.
Whitening is not suitable for everyone, so it’s important to consult with your dentist before starting a whitening regimen. Temporary tooth sensitivity and gum inflammation³ are possible side effects of tooth whitening. However, whitening is usually safe for most people and with the wide range of whitening products available, it’s easy to find one that works best for your teeth and lifestyle.
Professional dental teeth whitening services
Professional teething whitening services provided by a dentist are the most effective and quickest way to white your teeth; however, they are also the most expensive. With many dental insurance providers not covering cosmetic enhancements such as teeth whitening, it can be difficult to decide if in-office treatments are right for you.
We’ve laid out some of the benefits, estimates costs, and what you should expect from in-office teeth whitening procedures below.
In-office teeth whitening procedures
Cost: around $650⁴
When compared to other cosmetic dentistry procedures, teeth whitening remains one of the most affordable options for enhancing your look.
Though in-office whitening performed by a dentist is the most expensive, the results are usually instant, visible, and long-lasting when compared to lower-cost at-home whitening methods. Plus, in-office whitening only requires one trip to the dentist, as opposed to at-home options, which generally require frequent application and monthly upkeep. The visit should only take about an hour as the applied bleaching gel will remain on your teeth for between 15 and 30 minutes.
Home-use whitening products use low-dose bleaching agents. In contrast, in-office whitening offered by dentists takes place under controlled conditions and allow for the safe use of a relatively high concentration of bleaching gel. Though many dental insurance plans don’t cover cosmetic whitening, some dentists offer pre-paid payment plans to break up the cost.
Professional teeth whitening kits
For a more affordable option than in-office bleaching but that is still more effective than over-the-counter whitening products, professional teeth whitening at-home kits are the answer. Dentists can also set you up with a customized at-home whitening kit with custom-fitted trays and bleach approved for at-home use.
Your dentist will take impressions of your teeth and send them to the lab to make the teeth-whitening trays. Expect to receive your trays between one and two weeks after impressions are taken. Typically, you’ll wear the whitening trays for about an hour a day for two weeks.
The initial shade of your teeth should be recorded in your dental chart for comparison when whitening has been completed so you can see just how white your teeth are (or how yellow they might have once been)!
At-home teeth whitening methods
If professional dental whitening is out of your price range, there are several at-home whitening methods to try. They range from over-the-counter products you can purchase to natural remedies to help achieve a brighter smile.
However, there are some general considerations to take into account besides price when considering at-home versus professional whitening services.⁶
Strength of bleaching agent: Professional whitening uses a much stronger bleaching agent of 15 - 43% hydrogen peroxide compared to the 10 - 22% carbamide peroxide found in over-the-counter whitening methods, which only equals about 3% hydrogen peroxide.
Mouthpiece Trays and Dentist Supervision: A custom-fitted mouthpiece tray not only increase the contact of the bleaching agent with your teeth, but also ensures that your gums are protected from irritation. In-office bleaching also allows a dentist to perform an oral exam and consider your medical history before recommending a whitening program customized for you.
Over-the-counter teeth-whitening trays and gels
Cost: under $100
Similar to in-office whitening kits, over-the-counter whitening trays involve filling a mouth guard like tray with a whitening gel. The tray is generally worn between one and two hours a day for one to four weeks, depending on the product.
Initial results are seen in a few days, and final results are sustained for about four months. Teeth whitening done with whitening trays tends to be less dramatic and shorter-lasting than in-office whitening procedures.
Over-the-counter whitening kits don’t have the in-office advantage of being molded to fit your mouth, which may cause the gel to irritate the gums. Additionally, the weaker concentrations of bleaching agents will require more frequent use. However, for a fraction of the cost of in-office kits, over-the-counter trays may be a fitting alternative.
Teeth whitening strips
At-home whitening strips are typically meant to be worn for 30 minutes to an hour a day for two to three weeks, depending on the brand. Some strips even allow you to drink water while you wear them, adding an element of convenience to the affordable price. Strips generally contain only roughly 6% of hydrogen peroxide⁷; however, with their affordable price and ease of use, they are the most popular at-home whitening product on the market.
Teeth whitening pens
Cost: $10 - $60
Whitening pens are very similar to strips, except the whitening gel is painted onto the teeth rather than administered in a strip or tray. Then a lip guard is placed in the mouth for around 1 to two hours. Results are usually seen within a few two-hour sessions. People generally use pens for whitening irregularly colored teeth that might be missed by strips.
With the application of whitening pens being directly painted on the teeth, most people find that saliva easily washes off the bleaching solution. Also, with the pen’s design and the lip guard only protecting the front teeth, most find it very difficult to whiten the back teeth using the pen. However, given its similar price range to the strips, some may find the pen a suitable alternative.
Teeth whitening toothpaste and rinses
Whitening toothpaste and rinses generally cost the same as any regular store-bought toothpaste or rinse and can supplement or replace your regular toothpaste or rinse.
It may take between six and 12 weeks to see results. If you go this route, you’ll have to brush with toothpaste as normal and swish the whitening rinse in your mouth for 60 seconds twice a day before brushing your teeth.
Some experts say that whitening toothpaste and rinses may not be as effective as other over-the-counter whitening products, as they are only in contact with the teeth for less than two minutes at a time twice a day. Whitening toothpaste and rinses also contain much weaker concentrations of whitening agents than in-office procedures. However, most believe this will at least stop any further yellowing of the teeth.
Natural teeth whitening methods
There are a variety of home remedies to whiten your teeth, from eating fruits like strawberries and pineapples to the practice of oil pulling.⁸ We’ll look at a few more common home remedies that are popular today, but it’s important to remember that most of these are not proven through scientific research to be beneficial, so it’s critical you consult with your dentist or health care provider before trying any of the methods below.
Activated charcoal for teeth whitening
Cost: $6 – $20
Activated charcoal has had a new surge in popularity recently, but has been cited in the medical literature since the 1800s. You can find it in everything from shampoos to face masks and more. Activated charcoal is different from the regular charcoal used in barbecue grills because it’s been oxidized through exposure to extreme heat.
Activated charcoal has a unique absorbent nature that allows it to bind to toxins and odors rather than absorbing them. Some people believe this ability to bind is what makes it effective in teeth whitening.
However, activated charcoal has not been scientifically proven to whiten teeth, and some experts believe it could even damage your teeth. The American Dental Association (ADA)⁹ believes that the naturally abrasive texture of activated charcoal could harm the enamel of your teeth, which could actually enhance the appearance of yellowing as the layer of dentin¹⁰ underneath becomes exposed. Because there is no data to support that activated charcoal is safe and effective, it is not eligible for the ADA’s Seal of Acceptance and also not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Whitening teeth with baking soda
Cost: $1 – $10
A popular ingredient in commercial toothpaste, baking soda has natural whitening properties and acts as a mild abrasive to help scrub away harmful bacteria that can turn into plaque, which contributes to tooth yellowing. While brushing your teeth with baking soda hasn’t been scientifically proven to whiten teeth, several studies¹¹ have shown that using a toothpaste that contains baking soda over a toothpaste that didn’t result in a significant whitening effect.
Since baking soda is most effective at eliminating and preventing the growth of plaque that leads to yellowing, it won’t be effective in the removal of deep-set stains from coffee or tea.
Consult your dentist before trying any over-the-counter or natural whitening products, as misuse or overuse of products can result in weakening enamel or tooth sensitivity. A dentist can also help recommend a whitening solution that best fits your needs and lifestyle to help you get a bright white smile you deserve.
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