Teeth may be stained or discolored for a variety of reasons. If you want to make them brighter and whiter, you can do so safely. There are several options to choose from. You can visit your dentist for whitening treatments or try at-home whitening products. While there are some side effects from teeth whitening, most conventional whitening treatments are safe to use as long as you follow the product’s directions.

Teeth can become discolored for several reasons.

Extrinsic discoloration

  • Extrinsic discoloration is when foods, beverages, or smoking habits stain your teeth. Coffee, tea, red wine, foods with dyes, and tobacco can contribute to this type of staining. These stains affect the outside of your teeth.
  • Extrinsic discoloration may be treated with whitening toothpastes that target the teeth’s outside stains.

Intrinsic discoloration

  • Intrinsic discoloration is from within the tooth. You may have intrinsic discoloration because of medication use, childhood illness, infection, tooth trauma, or aging.
  • Intrinsic discoloration may need to be professionally bleached to get the same level, or better, of teeth whiteness.

You should decide how to whiten your teeth based on the type of staining you have.

There are many methods and products available to whiten teeth. You may be confused about what to use and which are safe.

There are three general categories of whitening methods, those that are:

  1. administered by your dentist
  2. dispensed by your dentist to use at home
  3. obtained over the counter or made at home without the oversight of your dentist

You may choose a certain method for teeth whitening based on one or more factors, including:

  • the type of discoloration you have
  • the cost involved in the treatment
  • the treatment method
  • your age (this pertains to children)
  • your dental history, including fillings and crowns

It’s useful to discuss whitening methods with your dentist before trying one. Your dentist can recommend a treatment plan that best addresses your needs. You’ll likely discuss a few different approaches to whitening teeth.

Keep in mind, the time it takes to whiten your teeth safely depends on the type of discoloration you have and the method you use to whiten your teeth.

Your dentist can use several different methods to whiten your teeth either in the office or at home. Generally, the methods they use will bleach your teeth with carbamide peroxide. This breaks down to hydrogen peroxide and urea and targets the tooth’s color in a chemical reaction. It’s considered a safe way to whiten teeth.

In-office treatment

An in-office whitening treatment can be beneficial because it works very quickly. The whitening effect may also last longer. Often, you may only need an hour treatment or a few visits to whiten your teeth. This is because the concentration of hydrogen peroxide in the applied products is greater than in products you use at home. In-office treatments are recommended if you have receding gums or abfraction lesions as well.

Your dentist may also use the application of light when applying the whitening product to your teeth to speed the process, but this additional method has not always been proven effective.

At-home treatment through your dentist

Dentists can also help you whiten your teeth at home. Your dentist may be able to make you custom-fit trays to fit into your mouth. You will add a gel to it and wear the tray 30 minutes to 1 hour a day (as recommended by your dentist) for a few weeks to whiten your teeth.

You can purchase over-the-counter (OTC) whitening products to help with stained teeth. Unlike products administered by a dentist, these products have no carbamide peroxide, or, much less than the products dentists use. This means that if your teeth are intrinsically discolored, OTC teeth whiteners may not work as effectively or may take longer to whiten your teeth.

Some OTC products have the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance. Not all products have this seal, and some products without it are still fine to use, but this seal is meant to give you more confidence to make buying decisions and to ensure what you’re using is safe.

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using a product.

Whitening toothpastes

Whitening toothpastes don’t use carbamide peroxide. Rather, these toothpastes target the surface of your teeth with a variety of substances, including abrasives and the chemical blue covarine. It may take time for whitening toothpastes to work, but those with blue covarine may be effective after just one brush because the chemical makes your teeth appear whiter.

Whitening strips

You can also purchase over-the-counter whitening strips for your teeth. These contain a smaller amount of hydrogen peroxide than professional products. You apply them one or two times a day to your teeth for a set period of time as indicated by the manufacturer.

A variety of whitening strip products are available, each at varying concentrations of bleaching agent.

Activated charcoal and other home-based methods

You may be curious about using homemade methods to whiten teeth. Activated charcoal is one such treatment. These methods are not scientifically proven to whiten teeth and should be discussed with a dentist before trying them. You may damage your teeth if you use these methods without first consulting a dentist.

Looking for more info? Consider this guide for which teeth whitening option is best for you.

While teeth whitening is considered safe, you may experience some side effects from treatments:

  • Teeth sensitivity. Your teeth may become more sensitive following teeth whitening. You may experience this on your first or second treatment, and it may diminish with time. Your dentist may recommend treating sensitivity with products that contain potassium nitrate and sodium fluoride gel.
  • Irritated gums. You may also experience gingival irritation. This is when your gums become irritated. This can happen because of contact on your gums with the whitening product. This side effect should go away after your treatments.

Keep in mind that you cannot whiten your teeth on a permanent basis. You’ll need to seek whitening treatments every so often for both extrinsic and intrinsic discoloration. Also keep in mind that these products are for natural teeth. You’ll need to talk to your dentist about how to unify the color of your teeth if you have implants, crowns, bridges, or dentures.

Teeth whitening treatments may not be right for you to try while you have active cavities or certain dental work in progress.

Your eating, drinking, and oral hygiene habits can impact how long your teeth whitening results last. After you’ve completed any whitening treatment, your teeth are still susceptible to staining from beverages like tea and coffee, and certain foods. Rinsing your mouth or brushing your teeth soon after eating or drinking can keep those kinds of discoloring agents from settling into the surface of your teeth — and decrease the chance for plaque to build up!

As long as you stick to dentist-approved methods, whitening your teeth is considered safe. Make sure to use the method that fits your needs and always follow the directions for the product. Contact your dentist if you experience any side effects.