Teeth whitening is one of the most popular cosmetic dental procedures, as, for most people, white teeth make for a beautiful smile. While teeth whitening may be done at home, it is safer and more effective when done by a dentist.

A teeth whitening procedure lightens teeth color and removes stains and discolorations. Because teeth are regularly stained/discolored by the foods and drinks we consume or certain unhealthy habits, such as smoking, teeth whitening has to be repeated on a regular basis.

Why do teeth become discolored?

Not everyone is born with the genes that give them brilliant white teeth. The natural color of your teeth is determined by the thickness and smoothness of the outer layer, or the enamel, and the color of the dentin underneath.

The enamel also has pores, which can easily hold stains. Over time, a thin coat also forms on the surface of the enamel, which picks up stains from food, drinks, and tobacco.

As we age, the enamel becomes thinner and the dentin, darker. Calculus or tartar can also cause discoloration. Tiny cracks in the teeth can hold stains. Some antibiotics and too much fluoride exposure during childhood cause staining underneath the surface.

How is teeth whitening done?

Teeth whitening works most effectively on surface stains. Below is what you can expect when you visit your dentist for a teeth whitening procedure.

  • Your dentist will take a photo of your teeth to track the progress of your treatment.
  • You will be asked questions to determine the causes of your teeth stains/discoloration.
  • Your dentist will examine your teeth and gums. If you have cavities, these will have to be treated before teeth whitening can proceed.
  • Your dentist will clean your teeth.
  • One of two types of whitening procedure is done depending on whether your teeth have live nerves or you had a root canal on a tooth which no longer has a live nerve.
  • Vital tooth whitening. This is done on teeth with live nerves.
    • First, your dentist will apply a substance to protect your gums.
    • Next, he will apply of a gel on the tooth surface.
    • Your dentist will then use a laser or specialized light to activate the bleaching process.
    • Depending on the severity of the staining and how white you want your teeth to get, the procedure can last from 30 to 90 minutes and require 1 to 3 appointments.
    • Your dentist may ask you to continue the treatment at home, if the staining is severe.
    • For at-home treatment, your dentist will take impressions of your upper and lower teeth and make a custom-fitting mouthpiece to ensure that the gel will remain in contact with your teeth.
    • At home, you will apply the whitening agent provided by your dentist to the inside of the mouthpiece.
    • You will need to wear your mouthpiece for several hours every day. Depending on the whiteness level you desire, you will have to wear the mouthpiece and continue treatment from one week up to four weeks or longer.

Non-vital tooth whitening. This procedure is used when a tooth has had root canal treatment and the staining has occurred inside the tooth. The whitening is also done on the inside and involves application of a whitening gel and covering it with a temporary filling. It usually takes several days for the whitening agent to take effect and only one treatment.

You will need to repeat the whitening procedure every 6 to 12 months, if you avoid consumption of teeth-staining foods and drinks and smoking. Otherwise, your teeth will become discolored/stained again within a month or so.

You can continue treatment at home, as needed and with a whitening schedule recommended by your dentist. You can continue to use the more effective whitening agent provided by your dentist; or you can purchase over-the-counter whitening gels or strips. The latter, however, are weaker, which means whitening will take longer. It’s important to always consult your dentist before starting whitening treatment at home, follow directions, and avoid overuse to prevent permanent damage to your teeth.