Teeth Whitening

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is teeth whitening?

Teeth whitening is a cosmetic dental procedure that whitens discolored teeth and creates a brighter, more youthful smile. Teeth whitening involves applying a bleaching solution or gel to remove superficial and deep stains and change the color of the tooth’s surface (enamel).

Teeth whitening is generally safe, but it does have potential complications. The effects of whitening vary by individual. Teeth should also be healthy and in good order prior to whitening. Not everyone is a candidate for teeth whitening. Ask your dentist if you are a candidate for teeth whitening.  

Teeth whitening is only one method used to improve tooth color. Other option include dental bonding and veneers. Discuss all of your options with your dentist to understand which options are right for you.

Why is teeth whitening performed? 

Your dentist may recommend teeth whitening to improve the color or brightness of your natural teeth. Many factors cause teeth to become yellow, brown, or gray in color. They include aging, coffee, tea, red wine, and tobacco products. Teeth whitening can make your teeth appear whiter and more luminous. 

It is important to keep in mind that teeth whitening cannot be used on teeth that have veneers, crowns, or dental bonds. The artificial materials used in these devices cannot be whitened. In addition, their current color may stand out against newly whitened natural teeth.

Who performs teeth whitening?

A general dentist or pediatric dentist performs teeth whitening. General dentists prevent, diagnose and treat diseases and conditions of the teeth, gums, mouth, and associated structures of the jaw and face. Pediatric dentists specialize in caring for the dental needs of children and teens.

You may also whiten your teeth at home using materials that your dentist gives you. Over-the-counter options are readily available as well. Talk to your dentist before using over-the-counter teeth whitening products and ask about the best products for you.

How is teeth whitening performed?

Your teething whitening will be performed in a dentist’s office or clinic. The procedure typically takes 30 and 90 minutes. It may need repeating, depending on the extent of discoloration. The effect of bleaching also tends to fade over time.

Teeth whitening generally includes these steps:

  1. You will sit in a reclining position in the dentist chair. You may wear a clear shield over your eyes. This protects your eyes from spraying liquids and dental instruments.

  2. Your dentist will swab your mouth and gums with a gel or paste that protects them from irritation during the whitening process.

  3. Your dentist will place the whitening gel on your teeth.

  4. Your dentist may shine a light or laser on your teeth. The light or heat from the light activates and intensifies the whitening solution.

Teeth whitening that you perform at home using a dentist’s materials generally includes these steps:

  1. Your dentist will make a mold (impression) of your teeth in the dental office or clinic.

  2. Your dentist will use the impression to make a mouthpiece that you will later wear during the whitening process.

  3. Your dentist will provide your customized mouthpiece, a tube of whitening solution or gel, and directions for how to use them at home. Depending on the current color of your teeth, your dentist may instruct you to wear your mouthpiece for a few hours a day or overnight, for a certain number of days or nights.

  4. You will brush and floss your teeth before your home treatment.

  5. You will squeeze a set amount of whitening solution into the mouthpiece and wear it for the prescribed number of hours. Be careful not to use too much solution or gel, which can seep out from the mouthpiece onto the gums and cause irritation.

  6. After your home treatment, you will brush and floss your teeth and clean your mouthpiece.

Will I feel pain?

Your comfort and relaxation are important to you and your care team. You may have slight tingling and irritation in your teeth or gums during or after treatment. Talk with your dentist if your gums or teeth are usually sensitive or tender of if you feel pain during the procedure. Your dentist may need to adjust your solution level or mouthpiece.

What are the risks and potential complications of teeth whitening?  

Complications of teeth whitening are uncommon, but any dental procedure involves risks and the possibility of complications. Complications may become serious in some cases. Complications can develop during the procedure or afterwards. 

Risks and potential complications of tooth whitening include:

  • Allergic reaction to whitening solution

  • Chemical burn of tissues

  • Gum irritation

  • Increased sensitivity of the teeth and gums

In addition, tooth whitening is not permanent, and results will vary by individual.
Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by:

  • Asking your dentist for advice before using over-the-counter teeth whitening products

  • Following instructions for your home teeth whitening treatment exactly as directed

  • Informing your dentist if you are nursing or if there is any possibility of pregnancy

  • Notifying your dentist immediately of any concerns after the procedure such as tooth or gum pain

  • Telling all members of your care team if you have any allergies

How do I prepare for my teeth whitening? 

You are an important member of your own dental care team. The steps you take before your teeth whitening can improve your comfort and outcome. There is generally no special preparation needed before teeth whitening, but it is important to do the following before any procedure:

  • Answer all questions about your medical and dental history and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications and allergies at all times.

  • Ensure that there is no active disease in the mouth prior to whitening. You should see your dentist before using an over-the-counter whitening treatment.

  • Maintain proper oral hygiene.

  • Take your medications exactly as directed.

  • Tell your dentist if you are nursing or there is any possibility of pregnancy.

Questions to ask your dentist

It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a dentist’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your dentist with concerns and questions before your procedure and between appointments.

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointment. Questions can include:

  • How long will the procedure take? When will I go home?

  • How should my teeth and gums feel after the procedure? What sensations will be normal?

  • What restrictions will I have after the procedure? When can I eat and drink afterwards?

  • How should I take care of my teeth to prevent more discoloration?

  • How often will I need treatments to keep my teeth white?

  • When should I follow up with you?

  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after teeth whitening?

Knowing what to expect after teeth whitening can help you get back to your everyday life as soon as possible.

How will I feel after teeth whitening?

Your teeth, gums and tongue may feel a little irritated or sensitive for a few days to a week after your tooth whitening. This is because of the strength of the whitening solution. Tell your dentist if these symptoms worsen or continue past a two to three days because they can be a sign of a complication. 

When can I go home?

You will probably go home and resume your normal activities right after a tooth whitening procedure. 

When should I call my dentist?

You should keep your follow-up appointments after  tooth whitening. Call your dentist if you have any concerns between appointments. Call your dentist right away if you have:

  • Bleeding

  • Excessive pain in your gums or teeth

Seek immediate medical care if you have itching, hives, mouth or tongue swelling, or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, or wheezing. This may be due to a rare allergic reaction to the bleaching solution.

How might teeth whitening affect my everyday life?

Teeth whitening can enhance the color and brightness of your teeth and should help you feel more satisfied and confident with your smile. Teeth whitening tends to be most effective on teeth that have yellowed and less effective on teeth with a grey color. 

Teeth that have been whitened require daily care just like normal teeth. You should continue to brush your teeth twice a day and floss every day. Visit your dentist at least once or twice a year or as recommended for regular cleanings and checkups to ensure that your teeth are still bright and healthy. 

Whitened teeth will return to their former color over time. You may choose to have more whitening treatments in a year or less. You can help retain your teeth’s whiteness in the meantime by avoiding teeth-staining substances including:

  • Black tea

  • Chewing tobacco

  • Cigarettes

  • Coffee

  • Red wine

You can also help maintain your teeth whitening effects by:

  • Drinking with straws

  • Rinsing your mouth with water or brushing your teeth after you eat and drink

  • Using whitening toothpaste. Ask your dentist for a recommendation that you can buy at the store.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 22
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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