Teeth Whitening

Ask Dr. Stanfield: What is the best way to whiten teeth? Does a light help to bleach them?

Teeth bleaching is definitely the most cost-effective cosmetic dentistry option by giving you the most impact for the money. There are many ways to lighten teeth. The method you choose will depend on how quickly you want your teeth whitened and what you are prepared to pay for whiter teeth.  You’ll see the best, most noticeable results with in-office custom whitening.

I’m a fan of what’s known as “dentist-supervised” bleaching, in which patients whiten their teeth at home following a dentist’s instructions. I think it’s the most efficient and effective way to whiten teeth. This method first involves fabrication of custom trays for both top and bottom arches of teeth. Once the trays are fitted, the patient wears the trays – filled with a moderately concentrated bleaching solution – for two to four hours a day. The cost of this method is between that of over-the-counter products and in-office bleaching.

Over-the-counter products do an adequate job and are the least expensive but take the longest time to obtain the desired result. As far as over-the-counter whitening kits, I think Crest Whitestrips are good.

In-office bleaching is the fastest but most expensive method. Tooth whitening in the dental office should be considered a “jump start” to the bleaching process. Following placement of a protective synthetic coating on the gums, a highly concentrated bleaching solution is placed on the teeth for 15-20 minutes. A special light may or may not be used to accelerate the process. (Most of the whitening that occurs is the result of the bleaching solution, not the light.)

In-office bleaching typically is followed up with at-home bleaching, as previously described, to continue the bleaching process.  After three to five days, at home bleaching yields comparable results with in office bleaching.  The main potential side effect of bleaching – at-home or in-office – is tooth sensitivity, which is reversible.

What will happen to my tooth-colored fillings and crowns if I bleach my teeth?

If you have porcelain crowns or tooth-colored fillings, you may need to replace them after tooth bleaching. Furthermore, if your crowns or fillings are in noticeable front teeth, bleaching may not be an effective option for brightening your smile. Why? Your crowns and fillings were color-matched to your teeth before bleaching, but bleach does not work on the manmade material they’re composed of.

Your natural teeth will respond to the bleach and become lighter during the bleaching process, while the fillings and crowns will not change. As a result, your crowns and fillings will appear to have darkened! They don’t actually get darker, but they may look significantly darker in comparison to your newly whitened natural teeth! If you are considering at-home or in-office tooth whitening, be aware that any crowns or fillings won’t get whiter, and plan for having those manmade materials replaced if their appearance concerns you.

Tooth whitening is best for people who have their natural, real teeth intact. If you have many fillings or crowns, or if they are placed in more obvious front teeth, it’s important to be aware that you may need to have them replaced. Remember, bleaching simply won’t have any whitening effect on them, and they may look even darker after your other teeth are whitened.