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 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 they 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 Teeth whitening at the dentist
- 5 Teeth whitening kits and other home solutions
- 6 Ways to whiten teeth naturally
- 7 Whitening sensitive teeth
- 8 Tips for keeping your teeth white after treatment
- 9 Is teeth whitening safe?
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. This was quite accidental, as they originally used hydrogen peroxide as an antiseptic treatment for gums but noticed that when teeth were exposed to it over time, they began to whiten.
It was another 20 years before 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 much discomfort you’re willing to go through.
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.
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.
Now let’s look in detail at the different treatment 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.
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 is also a higher level of patient satisfaction for whitening carried out at a dental surgery. A 2018 report found that 69% of patients were ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ with their results – compared to just 42% of those who had used a home whitening kit. Dissatisfaction with home whitening is generally due to lack of results or tooth sensitivity.
The following table shows the main types of whitening treatment available at the dentist. Below this you’ll find more detailed information about each one.
|Product||Laser whitening (power whitening)||Zoom whitening (LED)||Professional bleaching|
|Approximate cost||£500 - £1,500||£200 - £500||£150 - £700|
|Treatment takes...||1 hour, 1 or more sessions||1 hour, 3-4 sessions||3-4 weeks with 2-3 dentist visits; 30 minutes - 8 hours for each home treatment|
|Results appear...||straight away||straight away but build up during treatment||3-14 days|
|Comments||Intense whitening procedures can cause greater sensitivity||Whitening trays can be used at home following this procedure to maintain results||Begins with 2-3 dentist visits and is completed at home; 8-hour treatment can be done overnight|
Laser teeth whitening
This form of whitening, also known as “laser bleaching” or “power whitening”, uses lasers to speed up the bleaching effect of a concentrated gel applied to the teeth.
It’s the most expensive method, 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.
The results of laser whitening should be clear after just one visit, but your dentist may recommend repeating the process to achieve the results you desire.
Because laser whitening is such an aggressive method, there is a greater potential for sensitivity following treatment. This should subside quite quickly but can be uncomfortable for some patients and extremely painful for others.
Zoom teeth whitening
An alternative whitening procedure that takes place in a dental surgery is Zoom whitening. Using technology from Phillips, this works in a similar way to laser whitening but instead uses LED lights to accelerate a whitening agent.
LED teeth whitening systems like Zoom are not as intense as laser treatment so you’ll probably need 3-4 sessions to see the results you want. The upside of this is that you’re less likely to experience sensitivity. Each session takes 45 minutes to one hour.
This can be followed by a course of home teeth whitening treatment to prolong the results.
LED whitening has largely replaced UV whitening as it’s safer and proven to be more effective. It’s UV light that causes sunburn and skin cancer, so using it in the mouth can damage gums, cheeks and lips.
A cheaper form of whitening offered by dentists uses custom trays to apply professional tooth whitening gel. This gel is usually stronger and more comfortable to use than cheaper over-the-counter options.
This treatment begins with a visit to your dentist to take impressions of your teeth. These are used to create custom trays (like mouthguards) that will fit snugly in your mouth and ensure even coverage of the gel.
Each dentist will have their own opinion on the best teeth whitening gel to use, and may only offer one particular product through their practice.
Your dentist might begin the treatment in-practice or may just show you how to use your kit at home. Depending on the type of treatment, trays can be left on for 30-60 minutes or up to eight hours. The latter is useful for people who don’t have time during the day to wear their trays as they can leave them in overnight while they sleep.
Opalescence – the original tooth whitening gel in the UK – is one brand available for this kind of treatment. They also offer Opalescence Go which comes with a series of disposable, pre-filled trays that make white teeth more convenient to achieve.
Teeth whitening kits and other home solutions
More affordable tooth whitening treatments don’t involve a visit to the dentist – you do everything yourself at home. This table shows an overview of the different options, but keep reading to find out more about each one.
|Product||LED whitening||Bleaching trays (including kits)||Teeth whitening strips||Whitening pens||Whitening toothpaste|
|Approximate cost||£22 - £65||£9 - £65||£12 - £25||£7 - £20||£2 - £10|
|Treatment takes...||10-14 days, 10-30 minutes per day||10-14 days, 5-20 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 6 days||4-10 days||1-2 weeks||2-7 days||within 2-3 weeks|
|Comments||Results vary and may fade quickly||Available over-the-counter||No messy gels; available peroxide-free||Convenient for quick results; peroxide can cause sensitivity||Only removes surface stains; doesn't affect tooth colour|
Blue light whitening kits, like the ones you’ve probably seen celebrities not-so-subtly endorsing on social media, are a good option if you want a treatment you can do in your own time at home.
They come with trays that you fill with a whitening gel before using a blue LED light to accelerate the bleaching agent. Some kits come with fixed-shape trays to fit all sizes of mouth, while others have mouldable trays. Although these are supposed to provide a better fit, some people find them tricky to use. You must immerse them in boiling water and then bite down on them to mould them to the shape of your teeth.
There are many different LED whitening kits available to buy online, but be aware that not all of them are closely regulated. 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.
Very Good Smile Professional Teeth Whitening Kit is a high-quality kit manufactured in France, conforming to EU regulations for cosmetic products. It’s easy to use, with an LED light that attaches directly to the fixed shape mouth tray. They recommend using it for 20 minutes a day and it contains enough gel for 10 applications.
This kit is a good option if you have sensitive teeth, since it uses a gentler formula than many others on the market. It also comes with a generous 30-day money-back guarantee, so if you experience problems or are unhappy with the results you can get a refund.
Bleaching trays with gel
Similar to the option above but without the blue light, you’ll find a wide array of over-the-counter kits that use a bleaching gel.
These often come with an accelerator fluid that’s applied directly to teeth before the gel is used. Treatment can take between five and 30 minutes per day, depending on the strength of the gel. Courses usually run for 10-14 days to get the best results.
Many companies produce home whitening kits which combine bleaching trays with other products like pens, polishers, toothpaste and mouthwash. Used together, they can achieve decent short-term results.
The Crystal Smile Professional Home Whitening Kit is a popular choice in the UK. Different versions of the kit are available but even the most basic one includes mouldable mouth trays and an LED accelerator. It’s easy to buy replacement mouth trays and additional gel refills, making it an affordable option for longer-term use since you don’t have to keep buying the whole kit when you run out of something.
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.
One risk with any at-home tooth whitening kits that use trays not supplied by a dentist is they are not custom made to fit your mouth. This means there is a greater risk of the bleaching gel leaking out and burning or blistering other parts of your mouth. It’s also harder to get even coverage of the gel if your mouthpiece isn’t tight.
Teeth whitening strips
Whitening strips are available over-the-counter or online. 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. If you have a big event coming up and want to look great in the photos, this could be a good (and painless) option.
A popular peroxide-free brand of whitening strip in the UK is these coconut flavoured whitening strips from PearlyPoised. Not only do they taste nicer than many of the alternatives, according to reviews, but they also make a difference after just one or two uses without causing sensitivity.
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.
This is another affordable whitening option that can produce decent results quite quickly – some brands claim to make teeth 4-5 shades whiter. Individual results vary greatly, according to some user reviews. You’ll find the most choice (and honest feedback) if you order online.
The Absolute White pen is one option available in the UK. You’ll find it has mixed reviews, with some people branding it “excellent” and “awesome” and others “terrible”. For the price, however, it’s surely worth a try if you want a convenient way to get your teeth whiter. Since UK products are subject to stricter regulations on certain ingredients than those in the US, results are generally not as drastic.
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 scratches your tooth enamel. 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 option around, which makes it a popular option for giving your smile a slight boost. Certain toothbrushes (both manual and electric) are also designed to achieve better stain removal.
Sensodyne, Oral B, Crest and Colgate all offer a widely available range of toothpastes formulated specifically to whiten teeth.
Oral B’s Pro Expert Healthy White Toothpaste is one of the most popular in the UK. It may not be the cheapest of the big-name brands but most reviewers think it’s worth it for the results. It also claims to be the number one brand recommended by dentists worldwide.
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.
- 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.
- 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, but can also be less effective. Potassium nitrate and fluoride are effective pain relievers, so look for products that contain those.
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.
First of all, cut down on the foods and drinks we mentioned earlier that cause stains in the first place.
Drinking sugary or acidic drinks through a straw will help keep the liquid away from your precious tooth enamel. If that’s not possible, swallow quickly without swishing the drink around your mouth or letting it linger there.
After consuming any of the culprit foods and drinks, a simple rinse with water can help reduce the chances of staining, as can chewing sugar-free gum.
Finally, maintain good oral health 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.
“Anyone else offering teeth whitening (e.g. beauticians, hairdressers, and salon staff) won’t have the right training and knowledge, could permanently damage your teeth and gums and can’t help you when something goes wrong,” is the advice from the British Dental Association.
Home whitening kits carry some risks, but often the greatest risk is that you’ll waste your money and time on an expensive treatment that doesn’t really work.
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.