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 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'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, 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.
Causes of discolored 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 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
How much does teeth whitening cost?
Well, how long is a piece of string? For just a few dollars 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Blue light whitening 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 it doesn't always give even coverage over your teeth. Snow Teeth Whitening kits 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 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 which naturally dissolve after 10-15 minutes of wear.
In 2017, Crest 3D White Whitestrips Glamorous White became the first home-use tooth bleaching product to earn the American Dental Association seal of approval. After rigorous testing, the ADA concluded that the product was both effective and safe to use. This doesn't mean all brands of whitening strip meet the same standards, though.
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.
A clear winner in the US market is AuraGlow's Teeth Whitening Pen. This company also makes whitening kits so they know their stuff. The pen contains enough gel for 20+ treatments and they recommend using it once or twice a day. Thanks to the clear container you can see exactly how much gel is left inside. You can also check you're getting a full pen in the first place! The whitening ingredient is 35% carbamide peroxide which, reviewers say, gives noticeable results.
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.
In the US, Crest's 3D White Brilliance two-step cleaning system is very popular. Step 1 is a foaming toothpaste to provide deep cleaning, while step 2 is a whitening gel. You brush with each product for one minute, so the overall cleaning time is no different to regular tooth brushing. There are mixed opinions on the taste, with one user describing it as “perfectly minty” but others complaining of an unpleasant aftertaste. Still, most say it leaves their teeth feeling clean and looking brighter after a week or so.
You can read our full guide to 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:
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 whitening with activated charcoal here.
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 consider a home whitening kit made for sensitive teeth like Snow, as we mentioned above.
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.
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 as recommended. 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.
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.