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 US, 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 US, 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 Best teeth whitening in the US
- 5 Ways to whiten teeth naturally
- 6 Whitening sensitive teeth
- 7 Tips for keeping your teeth white after treatment
- 8 Is teeth whitening safe?
- 9 Conclusion
- 10 FAQs
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've said goodbye to metal files, urine, and sticks?
How to get white teeth
There are many tried and tested ways to whiten teeth these days or get rid of white spots on teeth, 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 color.
Whitening is often part of a Hollywood dental makeover to completely restore your smile.
Causes of discolored teeth
Have you thought about why you don't have white teeth in the first place? Actually, our teeth are not supposed to be bright white. Although the enamel that coats teeth is a blueish-white color, its translucency means the yellow color 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.
Foods that stain teeth
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 colored 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 color 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, known as smokers' teeth.
- Braces: While adult braces help improve your smile by making your teeth straighter, at the same time they can leave them looking less-than-white.
- Some antibiotics: Tetracycline teeth are from taking this antibiotic as a child, resulting in grey stripes.
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.
Minimize 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 neutralize 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.
Tooth discoloration can be caused due to a number of lifestyle factors, which can change the efficacy of most tooth whitening procedures.
For most people, teeth stains are caused by a lifetime of consuming stain-prone food and drinks like coffee and tea. In addition, other stain-causing habits like smoking and chewing tobacco are also common culprits, as are certain prescription medications.
For others, it’s not a matter of bad habits but a combination of age and genetics. Teeth whitening treatments can help brighten your smile by several shades, however, going back to these stain-causing habits could affect how long your results last.
Dr. Brandon Murri, Family and Cosmetic Dentistry of the Rockies
How much does teeth whitening cost?
The cost of teeth whitening at the dentist can be from $300 to $1,800, depending on if you're getting professional bleaching or laser whitening treatment, which is the most expensive option.
Teeth whitening costs at home are much less, ranging anywhere from $20 for a kit off of Amazon, to a $300 for an LED whitening kit.
Some US insurance companies do make some allowance for this treatment. If you have a dental plan, it's worth checking to see whether it offers any benefits for whitening. A dentist near you may also offer a dental savings plan to help pay for treatment. Of course, before enrolling in a plan, make sure it covers the teeth whitening procedures you want.
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.
Best teeth whitening in the US
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. Below you'll find some information about each option, but you can view our article about professional teeth whitening for greater detail.
Laser teeth whitening
Laser bleaching uses lasers to speed up the bleaching effect of a concentrated gel applied to the teeth. Although it’s the most expensive method, 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 relatively cheap teeth whitening method 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.
One popular and very effective professional option is Smile Brilliant. Smile Brilliant is a professional teeth whitening system, but since you do it at home, it's quite a bit cheaper than in-office bleaching.
Smile Brilliant isn't the same as most at-home teeth whitening kit, because it really is the same treatment you get in the office. That's because your whitening trays are custom-made in the same lab that dentists get their trays in, and the whitening gel is the same strength that dentists use for in-office bleaching.
What's more, Smile Brilliant is ideal for people with sensitive teeth because you can order your kit with a specially formulated desensitizing gel that greatly reduces and in some cases prevents sensitivity.
If you want to know more about this professional whitening kit you can read our full Smile Brilliant review.
Teeth whitening kits and other home solutions
If you don't have time to check out all of our recommendations, there is one brand of at-home whitening that stands out for its wide range of effective whitening solutions—Dr. Brite.
In short, Dr. Brite is a women-owned, cruelty-free, vegan and B-corp certified health care brand with a carefully curated collection of whitening products. They offer a complete Extreme Whitening Kit, which includes:
- Whitening mouthwash
- Whitening pens
- LED whitening mouthpiece
- Whitening gel
They also offer each of these products sold separately if you'd like to choose your own teeth whitening journey. Click the link below to browse their complete selection of earth-friendly and effective whitening products. It's no risk either—they offer a 30-day money-back guarantee!
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.
Blue teeth whitening light kits are another option if you want a treatment you can do in your own time at home.
These usually consist of a whitening gel or serum that you apply to your teeth or put directly in a tray that then goes into your mouth. Then, a blue LED light is used to activate the bleaching agent. With some versions, you can immerse the trays in boiling water and then bite down on them to mold them to the shape of your teeth. Others use fixed-shape trays to apply the gel.
One criticism of this kind of kit is that the gel can easily leak out and damage your gums, and cause sensitivity and it doesn't always give even coverage over your teeth.
Dr. Brite Extreme whitening kits provide a solution to this problem with included vitamin E swabs that protect and soothe gums during the whitening procedure and natural ingredients that are gentle on you and the earth.
Snow Teeth Whitening kits also address this with their market-leading technology that lets you ‘paint' the whitening serum directly onto your teeth, before inserting your LED mouthpiece.
The mouthpiece plugs into your smartphone or any other USB port so you can use it anywhere, and they also have a premium wireless kit that you can even use in the shower—super convenient!
Snow’s whitening system works in as little as 9 minutes a day but you can wear it for as many as 30 minutes per session, twice a day, to speed results along. Their gel formula is made so that people with sensitive teeth can use it too, but their desensitizing serum will help in more serious cases.
Snow's whitening kits come with a 30-day money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied with your results. Read our full review of Snow to find out more.
Bleaching trays with gel
If you're looking for a cheaper option to LED kits, you'll find a wide array of over-the-counter kits that use a bleaching gel.
These kits may be cheaper, but the results are usually not as good, nor as long-lasting, and the ingredients are often harsher.
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.
Keep in mind that with any of these non-professional bleaching gel kits 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. Snow (mentioned above) is one example of a kit that addresses these problems with its technology.
Teeth whitening strips
Whitening strips are available over-the-counter or online. Strips are placed directly onto teeth, so are much cleaner and easier 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 that require shorter wear-times.
There are many white strips brands on the market to choose from. One of the options we most recommend is from Burst. Burst makes coconut whitening strips, influenced by the ancient Ayurvedic practice of oil pulling. The oil in the strips works with the peroxide to drastically eliminate stains from teeth.
Another great thing about Burst strips is that you only need to wear them for 10 minutes per day, for just seven days. And you'll likely see results after just the first use. If you want to whiten teeth with Burst Coconut Whitening Strips, you can click the link below to get started.
Teeth whitening pens
Whitening pens are really more like brushes; they consist of a small tube of gel that is applied directly to teeth via a built-in brush.
Pens usually contain hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide (like the Radiance teeth whitening pen), 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 about 2 applications per day lasting anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the manufacturer.
One of the brands of teeth whitening pens that we recommend is Dr. Brite. These pens remove and prevent stains, and will help you keep your teeth free from coffee, tea and wine stains through continued use. And they can lighten your teeth by several shades, without any harsh chemicals.
They even have specific whitening pens for each person's specific whitening needs. There's a pen for coffee and tea stains, another for red wine stains, one for smoking and vaping stains, one for general whitening, and another pen to help maintain your white teeth.
All Dr. Brite whitening pens are cruelty free, vegan, gluten-free, paraben-free, non-GMO, phthalate-free, sulfate-free. They aren't free, however, from wholesome natural ingredients like organic aloe, organic coconut oil and activated charcoal. Click the button below to get yours now!
Perhaps you've seen a whitening version of your favorite 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 color 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. Other brands, like Smileactives, offer a gel that is added to your toothpaste.
You can read our full guide to the best whitening toothpastes for more detailed information.
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 afterward, but you should notice that 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:
Another option for natural whitening is to go with a brand like Dr. Brite. They offer a wide range of natural whitening products, including gels, pens, toothpaste and mouthwash, all of which are cruelty-free, SLS-free, vegan, and the company is owned by two women doctors.
You can browse their products by following the link below!
Although it might seem counter-intuitive to put something black on your teeth to make them white, there is a reason why charcoal powders and toothpastes have become so popular. You can read more about activated charcoal for teeth whitening.
One of the top sellers is Active Wow's Charcoal Powder. This product comes pre-mixed with bentonite, which remineralizes teeth and absorbs toxins. It also contains orange seed oil, a natural teeth whitener and antiseptic ingredient.
Many users comment that they prefer this mint-flavored powder to others they have tried, and the results are impressive given the low price tag (especially when compared to professional in-office whitening).
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. You can also get a kit like Smile Brilliant that comes with desensitizing gel.
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 brightly:
- 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
- Don't smoke or vape
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.
Many people find it easier to maintain whiter teeth with an electric toothbrush like this one from Burst. This innovative toothbrush delivers 33,000 sonic vibrations per minute that remove plaque for a dentist-clean look and feel.
What's more, the extra soft bristles are infused with activated charcoal for an extra whitening boost. If you want to try the Burst toothbrush, click the link below!
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—these also don't whiten like natural teeth.
You may see whitening advertised by local beauty salons or mobile whitening services, but these are not trained dental professionals.
Home whitening kits can be a great solution for many people as well, just make sure to choose one that gets good reviews and can demonstrate proven results.
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.
For more about whitening, read 6 teeth whitening myths you should know about.
There are many teeth whitening options to consider when you want a brighter smile. Visiting a dentist – either for in-office whitening or a take-home kit – will help ensure your treatment is conducted safely and effectively, with the supervision of a trained professional.
However, not everybody can afford professional whitening. In this case, there are many good teeth whitening treatments available over-the-counter and online. They may not be quite as effective as in-office treatments, but they can still whiten teeth by several shades over one to two weeks of treatment.
Teeth whitening products in the US are heavily regulated, so there is little risk of them damaging your teeth if used as instructed. Whitening gel may be harmful if it comes into contact with gums, and may cause sensitivity, which is why we recommend a system like Dr. Brite, which includes soothing vitamin E treatment, or Smile Brilliant which offers desensitizing gel.
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.
How do I find teeth whitening near me?
If a particular brand of professional teeth whitening appeals to you, check the manufacturer's website to find a dentist offering teeth whitening services near you. Alternatively, ask your usual dentist if they offer any teeth whitening services, or if they can recommend a nearby dentist who does.
How much is teeth whitening?
Professional teeth whitening can cost nearly $2,000, while at-home kits are usually around $200. White strips and toothpaste are the cheapest options, but not as effective as more intensive methods.
Does teeth whitening work?
Yes, the majority of teeth whitening products work to some degree. But it's important to differentiate between surface stain removal, like from toothpaste or white strips, and enamel bleaching. You should also keep in mind that just because a whitening technique works, it doesn't mean it is safe for your teeth in the long run.
What is the best way to whiten teeth quickly?
When you get in-office whitening, you'll walk out with noticeably whiter teeth. If your budget doesn't permit that, try a home whitening kit which can begin to whiten your teeth in a few days.
How long does teeth whitening last?
Treatments for whitening teeth can last as little as a few months, or over a year. Professional teeth whitening gel and teeth whitening trays will have longer-lasting results.