Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror or in a photo and wished your smile was a little bit… brighter? If so, you're hardly alone. Teeth whitening is big business in the UK and there is a vast array of different solutions now available – from state-of-the-art laser treatment to home whitening kits.
But this immense amount of choice can be pretty overwhelming, especially if you're considering whitening your teeth for the first time. To make matters worse, some of the products and cosmetic treatments you see advertised online are ineffective or even unsafe.
In this guide to cosmetic whitening in the UK we'll talk you through the many different options when it comes to getting a whiter smile (including the ones that are a waste of time and/or money). We'll cover a full range of professional and DIY solutions, telling you how much these teeth whitening options cost and how effective they are, so you'll be better informed when it comes to choosing the best way to get whiter teeth.
Table of contents
- 1 A brief history of tooth whitening
- 2 How to get white teeth
- 3 How much does teeth whitening cost?
- 4 Home teeth whitening kits
- 5 Teeth whitening at the dentist
- 6 Other home whitening solutions
- 7 Ways to whiten teeth naturally
- 8 Whitening sensitive teeth
- 9 Tips for keeping your teeth white after treatment
- 10 Is teeth whitening safe?
- 11 Checking teeth whitening reviews
- 12 Conclusion
A brief history of tooth whitening
The question of how to whiten teeth is one that has bothered people for thousands of years.
In ancient Egypt, having white teeth was a sign of wealth. Egyptians used a paste made from ground pumice stone and wine vinegar, applied with a frayed stick (the original toothbrush). But that's not as bad as the Romans, who used urine. It would have worked, because it contains ammonia, but thankfully we've now found other solutions.
In the 17th Century, before dentists existed in their own right, barbers would take care of oral health. This often involved pulling problem teeth, but they also whitened teeth by filing down the stained enamel and applying nitric acid. It goes without saying that you shouldn't try this at home.
Fortunately, in the 1960s, dentists identified the whitening properties of peroxide, and 20 years later commercial tooth whitening solutions emerged. Dental trays were filled with a thick whitening gel containing carbamide peroxide – a technique still widely used today. Aren't you glad we have waved goodbye to metal files, urine, and sticks?
How to get white teeth
There are many tried and tested ways to whiten teeth these days, including:
- coconut oil
Confused? Don't worry, all will become clear.
The best teeth whitening method for you will depend on how much you have to spend, how quickly you want to see results, how permanent you want it to be, and how sensitive your teeth are.
Note that all the whitening techniques we cover here will only work on your natural teeth; any dentures, fillings, veneers or implants will remain the same colour.
Causes of discoloured teeth
Have you thought about why you don't have pearly white teeth in the first place? Actually, our teeth are not supposed to be brilliant white. Although the enamel that coats teeth is a blueish-white colour, its translucency means the yellow colour of the dentin below can show through.
Enamel thins as we get older, so it's normal for teeth to darken or become yellower over time. You can read more about why teeth go yellow and what to do about it in our full article on the topic. Medicines like tetracycline can also permanently discolour tooth enamel.
For most people, the yellowing process is accelerated by the things we eat and drink, and other external factors. These include:
- Berries: Although the antioxidants in berries provide health benefits, their deep hue can cause staining (have you ever tried to get a raspberry stain out of a white shirt?).
- Sauces: Brightly coloured sauces like curries and tomato sauce can also contribute to staining, and the acidity of tomatoes makes them a double culprit. Opt for a lighter, creamy version to lessen the chances of tooth staining.
- Coffee: The dark colour and acidity of coffee both have a detrimental effect on your teeth.
- Tea: Black tea in particular can be more damaging than coffee. Even lighter herbal teas can erode enamel and cause staining.
- Wine: The tannins in red wine are responsible for turning teeth a shade of grey. White wine, meanwhile, although not directly responsible for staining, can make existing stains darker.
- Sugary drinks: It's well known that sugary soft drinks cause tooth decay, but because they do this by wearing away that bright tooth enamel, your teeth will appear darker over time, too.
- Smoking: The nicotine and tar in tobacco can stain teeth very quickly. Over the years, heavy smokers may find their teeth turning brown.
- Braces: While braces help improve your smile by making your teeth straighter, at the same time they can leave them looking less-than-white.
You might say that the best way to whiten teeth, then, is just to avoid the things that are likely to stain them. But we know it's not always that simple, so while you sip that coffee we'll continue explaining how to undo the damage later.
Minimise the staining effects of certain foods by eating them alongside foods that can prevent tooth staining such as cheese, lettuce, celery, carrots, apples and cauliflower. These either help clean teeth through friction or work to neutralise the acid which damages enamel.
No matter how hard you try to maintain a white smile, there may still come a time when you consider whitening.
How much does teeth whitening cost?
Well, how long is a piece of string? For just a couple of pounds you can pick up a tube of toothpaste. At the other end of the scale, laser treatment can easily set you back four figures.
Professional teeth whitening costs more than many home treatments, but you're paying for the expertise of a dental professional who can advise you on any risks and recommend the best whitening treatment for you.
It's worth mentioning that you won't get subsidised or free tooth whitening on the NHS unless there's a medical reason for it, for example if the nerve has died and caused the tooth to darken. In most cases it's considered a cosmetic treatment, so you'll need to pay for it privately.
You'll be hard-pushed to find dental insurance in the UK that covers aesthetic whitening, but many dentists offer payment plans for their more expensive treatments so you can spread the cost. You could also consider taking out a dental loan – read more about dental financing options here.
Now let's look in detail at the different teeth whitening options, how much they cost, and how effective they are. You should consider all of these factors when deciding on the best teeth whitening product for you.
Home teeth whitening kits
Home whitening kits are popular because they are both affordable and convenient. You'll find many different variations on the market, but they all contain a bleaching agent which sits in a tray (like a mouthguard) inside your mouth.
Application times vary between about 10 and 30 minutes per day, and a single treatment course is usually 1-2 weeks. Home whitening makes it easy to whiten your teeth without too much disruption to your day.
Here are some things to consider when choosing an at-home teeth whitening kit:
- Where is it made? Places like the UK, US and EU have stricter regulations governing the ingredients used in whitening gels than some other countries. It's always a good idea to check the ingredients list so you know what you're putting in your mouth, and find out where the product was manufactured so you know which regulations it conforms to.
- LED whitening kits: Also known as ‘blue light whitening kits', these come with an LED light that accelerates the bleaching agent. Bleaching kits without an LED light may contain an accelerator fluid instead, which you apply to your teeth before the gel.
- Fixed shape vs. mouldable trays: Some kits come with fixed shape mouth trays; others have thermoforming trays which must be placed in boiling water and then moulded to the shape of your teeth. The idea of mouldable trays is that they provide a better fit to ensure the gel stays on your teeth. However, many people find the moulding process difficult to master and prefer ready-to-use fixed shape trays.
Here are two home whitening kits that we recommend. They are both made in the US, ensuring high-quality ingredients that conform with the relevant regulations.
Smile Avenue Professional Tooth Whitening Kit
This high-quality whitening kit that's new to the UK market comes from Smile Avenue. This kit is made in the US with a gentle whitening gel formula.
You get a cleaning spray which you use to brush your teeth before whitening, then you just attach the mouth tray to the LED accelerator light and leave it for 20 minutes per daily application.
This kit contains 3 x 10ml syringes of gel – more than you get with many other kits. After 1-2 weeks of use you should see noticeable results, which you can check against the shade guide provided.
You can find more information about this kit in our full product review here.
For a limited time only, Smile Avenue is offering 10% off this kit on Amazon when you use our exclusive discount code at the checkout: SMILEA10
Snow Teeth Whitening Kit
The Snow teeth whitening system is a bit different to most standard kits. Instead of putting gel into mouth trays, you apply it directly to your teeth with a whitening pen. This means less mess, less wasted gel and no chance of it squirting out and damaging your gums. Plus, it ensures even coverage – which can be a problem with kits that use fixed-shape mouth trays.
Snow also have a premium wireless kit (pictured) which has a waterproof LED mouthpiece that's safe to use in the shower. Teeth whitening doesn't get much more convenient than that!
All Snow's products are made in the US so you know you're getting a certain level of quality. They do cost a bit more than the standard kits you can buy online, but they work out great value when you consider you're getting a year's worth of treatments included with Snow.
You can visit Snow's website to view their full product range and check their best prices to see if it's right for you, or read our full review of Snow here. You can get 25% off your whole order for a limited time using promo code SMILE.
Our in-depth article on teeth whitening kits has a lot more information on the types of kit and different brands available. Take a look if you want to compare a wider range of products.
Teeth whitening at the dentist
If you have the money to spend, it's a good idea to visit your dentist to talk about cosmetic teeth whitening. Not only are their treatments effective; they also know how to carry them out safely and can help if you have any side effects.
There are three main types of whitening treatment available at the dentist.
Laser teeth whitening
Laser bleaching uses lasers to speed up the bleaching effect of a concentrated gel applied to the teeth. This method for whitening teeth costs the most, but it's also the closest you'll get to “instant” teeth whitening.
Your dentist will first apply a rubber seal to protect your gums, then will cover your teeth with a bleaching product – probably containing hydrogen peroxide. By shining a laser on your teeth, whitening happens much faster than with other treatments.
This intense whitening treatment should give clear results after just one visit, but it also has greater potential for sensitivity following treatment.
Zoom teeth whitening
Using technology from Phillips, Zoom whitening works in a similar way to laser whitening but instead uses LED lights to accelerate a whitening agent.
LED teeth whitening systems are less intense, meaning less chance of sensitivity but also a longer treatment time (normally 3-4 sessions of 45-60 minutes).
This can be followed by a course of home teeth whitening treatment to prolong the results.
A cheaper form of whitening offered by dentists uses custom trays to apply professional tooth whitening gel. This gel is usually stronger than the ones provided in DIY kits so can produce better results.
Your dentist will take impressions of your teeth which are used to create custom mouth trays. Once these are ready, you complete your whitening treatment at home. Some professional whitening gels can be left on overnight – handy if you don't have time to wear your trays during the day. You'll need to ask your dentist about the options they offer, though.
Other home whitening solutions
Teeth whitening kits are the most effective way to whiten teeth at home, but there are other products you can use to brighten your smile without visiting a dentist. You can use these alone for gentle results, or use them to maintain the shade you've achieved from another kind of whitening.
Teeth whitening strips
Teeth whitening strips are placed directly onto teeth, so are much cleaner and easy to use than gels and trays.
Many brands have the appeal of being peroxide-free, but some still rely on peroxide to whiten teeth. Strips usually need to be applied for around 30 minutes and then removed, but it's also possible to buy strips which naturally dissolve after 10-15 minutes of wear.
Whitening strips do a good job of brightening up your front teeth but aren't as effective for back teeth and the uneven bite surfaces. It can be tricky to reach every part of each tooth with the strip, so teeth may not whiten consistently.
Still, they are a cost-effective option and can produce good results quite quickly – in as few as seven days.
Teeth whitening pens
Whitening pens are really more like brushes; they consist of a small tube of gel which is applied directly to teeth via a built-in brush.
Pens usually contain hydrogen peroxide, although some peroxide-free brands are available. Users like them because they're so convenient; you can carry them anywhere and use them whenever you have time.
Treatment takes from 1-2 weeks, with 2-4 applications per day lasting anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the manufacturer. You probably won't get bright white teeth this way but you might get them a few shades whiter.
Whitening toothpaste and toothbrushes
Perhaps you've seen a whitening version of your favourite toothpaste at the supermarket and thought “It can't hurt to try”. Well the thing is, it can hurt. Literally. Using an abrasive product like this can scratch away your tooth enamel as well as stains. When used over a long period of time (e.g. to brush teeth every day), many users experience increased sensitivity.
Whitening toothpaste only removes surface stains – rather than altering the colour of the teeth themselves – so if your teeth are naturally yellowish, using whitening toothpaste won't change that. However, it can be used to prolong the effects of other whitening treatment.
It's also the cheapest teeth whitening option around, which makes it a popular option for giving your smile a slight boost. We have written a separate guide to the best whitening toothpastes in the UK, so take a look if you're interested in trying a new brand.
Teeth whitening at home: summary
This table summarises all the different products we've mentioned for whitening your teeth at home, along with the approximate teeth whitening cost for each one:
|Product||Home whitening kits||Teeth whitening strips||Whitening pens||Whitening toothpaste|
|Approximate cost||£10 - £65||£12 - £25||£7 - £20||£2 - £10|
|Treatment takes...||7-14 days, 10-30 minutes per day||1-2 weeks, 10-60 minutes per application||1-2 weeks, 10-30 minutes per application||5-6 minutes every day (normal brushing time)|
|Results appear...||within 4-6 days||1-2 weeks||2-7 days||within 2-3 weeks|
|Comments||Best at-home solution, results vary||No messy gels; available peroxide-free||Convenient for quick results; peroxide can cause sensitivity||Only removes surface stains; doesn't affect tooth colour|
Ways to whiten teeth naturally
If you're happy to trade quick results for a more natural approach, there are several natural teeth whitening techniques that some people swear by. While these won't give you a dazzling white smile overnight, they can be effective at keeping teeth clean and white over the longer term.
- Coconut oil pulling (swishing a spoonful around your mouth for 10-15 minutes) is a traditional Indian technique for improving oral hygiene. You'll need to rinse and brush as usual afterwards, but you should notice your teeth feel cleaner. Read more about how to oil pull here.
- A homemade whitening paste can be concocted using baking soda mixed with water or a very small amount of hydrogen peroxide. Get a runny consistency and then rub onto teeth for 30 seconds after brushing normally.
- Activated charcoal will turn your whole mouth black but once you wash it off you'll find your teeth are sparkly clean. Available as a powder or toothpaste – read more about this below.
- Mashed strawberries can be applied directly to the teeth and left for a few minutes – a technique championed by model Tyra Banks. Be sure to rinse well afterwards because the acid in strawberries can damage enamel.
- Apple cider vinegar can be effective at removing dark stains on teeth. Rub it on your teeth for about a minute using your finger, then rinse with water and brush normally. Continue for at least a month to get good results.
Here is a video explaining more about the increasingly popular oral health treatment of coconut oil pulling:
Read more about the benefits of using a natural toothpaste and avoiding certain chemicals found in commercial brands.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive to put something black on your teeth to make them white, there is a good reason why charcoal powders and toothpastes have become so popular. You can read more about whitening with activated charcoal here.
Very Good Smile Teeth Whitening Powder is a popular product in the UK made from all natural ingredients. The 30g tub contains enough powder for 2-3 months of daily use. You can apply it directly to your teeth with water or mix it with other ingredients to form a homemade toothpaste (find some recipes here). Despite the non-abrasive formula, it's effective at brightening teeth stained from tobacco, wine, tea and coffee.
Whitening sensitive teeth
Some patients report experiencing “unbearable” pain after whitening their teeth. If you have sensitive teeth or have experienced sensitivity in the past, it's a good idea to speak to your dentist about your concerns. He or she may be able to administer topical pain relief to manage any pain you experience after whitening.
If you opt for a home whitening treatment, it might be a good idea to build up to the manufacturer's recommended treatment time. For example, if they tell you to apply a gel for 15 minutes, try it for five minutes first and see how your teeth feel.
Products that don't contain hydrogen peroxide may result in less sensitivity, while potassium nitrate and fluoride are effective pain relievers.
Tips for keeping your teeth white after treatment
Although there are no truly permanent teeth whitening solutions, there are measures you can take to ensure the effects last as long as possible after you've taken the time to get your teeth shining bright:
- Cut down on the foods and drinks we mentioned earlier that cause stains in the first place
- Drink sugary or acidic drinks through a straw
- Rinse with water or chew sugar-free gum after consuming culprit foods and drinks
Finally, maintain good oral hygiene practices such as regular brushing and flossing. Visit your dentist twice a year for routine checkups, as well as booking a hygienist appointment for a scale and polish. This will help keep your mouth free from the plaque and bacteria that contribute to tooth decay and staining.
Is teeth whitening safe?
The safest way to whiten teeth is through an approved dentist. Dental professionals are trained to carry out various whitening procedures and also to identify cases where whitening isn't recommended. For example, people with gum disease or dental crowns are advised not to whiten their teeth.
You may see whitening advertised by local beauty salons or mobile whitening services, but these are not trained dental professionals. In the UK it's illegal for the work to be carried out by anyone who isn't a qualified dentist.
Home whitening kits are safe to use as long as you follow the instructions provided. Don't be tempted to exceed the recommended gel dosage or usage time as this can cause damage to your teeth and gums.
If you're concerned about the risks of whitening your teeth, it's best to speak to your dentist first. You can also talk to people you know who have had similar treatment and ask about their experience.
Checking teeth whitening reviews
Whatever teeth whitening method you choose, you'll be able to find reviews online which give you an idea of what it's like and what kind of results you can expect.
Just be aware that some brands give their products to social influencers for free in return for a review or video. This should be disclosed in the review, but it may make it less impartial.
Also remember that different people will have different experiences in terms of whitening results, sensitivity, ease of use, and so on. Still, checking reviews from others should help you decide which treatment to have.
There are many teeth whitening options to consider when you want a brighter smile. Teeth whitening costs at a dental practice can be quite high, but they do offer professional treatment and supervised treatment.
Whitening teeth costs less if you purchase a kit to use at home, and many of these products still give good results. They are generally safe to use; the biggest risk is that you experience sensitivity or your teeth just don't get any whiter. Pens, strips and other products can be good for topping up and maintaining results, but may not give much of a whitening effect when used alone.
If you have any concerns about whitening your teeth or are unsure whether it's safe for you, we recommend you speak to a dentist first.