The best (and cheapest ways) to whiten your teeth

There are lots of reasons why your teeth can become discoloured. Some are preventable, others are not. From a dentist’s perspective, there are two key categories of discolouration: staining of the outside of the tooth (extrinsic) and staining within the structure of the tooth itself (intrinsic).

Extrinsic staining

Staining on the outside of the teeth is commonly caused by dietary factors, including ingesting darkly coloured food and drinks such as tea, coffee and red wine that stain the pellicle, which is a thin membrane on the surface of the tooth. (Smoking stains your teeth in a similar way, which is yet another reason to stop.) The pellicle has a strong attachment to the tooth surface and once stained can be very difficult to remove. The best way to prevent extrinsic staining is, of course, to avoid the key causes of staining outlined above. But even we dentists understand that this isn’t always possible, so a tooth whitening treatment can be a beneficial way to reverse some of life’s inevitable wear and tear.

Intrinsic staining

Staining of the structure of the tooth is also caused in a variety of ways. Discolouration can occur in childhood, while the teeth are forming. However, by far the biggest causes of intrinsic discolouration is the aging process itself. Over time, our teeth will naturally lose some of their pearly whiteness and instead start to look a little yellow or grey and translucent.

Do ‘tooth whitening’ toothpastes work?

The answer is a qualified yes: whitening toothpastes can be effective but only in removing extrinsic staining. Whitening toothpastes are abrasive and work by rubbing away the stained pellicle on the tooth surface without affecting the enamel that lies beneath. Some toothpastes also have an additive that makes teeth look whiter by depositing tiny amounts of a whitening substance onto the surface of the tooth. The effects of this are temporary and will stop once you stop applying the toothpaste.

What is the best way to whiten my teeth?

The first rule, which applies to all the most effective whitening treatments, is simple: go to see your dentist. Even for purely cosmetic treatments, professional dentists are your best source of sound advice and expertise. There is also a compelling legal reason to do this: only registered dentists are legally allowed to supply products containing between 0.1pc and 6pc hydrogen peroxide, which is the active ingredient in most tooth whitening products. Tooth whitening treatments offered online or in walk-in whitening stands in shopping centres – which can include the use of non-peroxide gels and whitening lamps – do not necessarily come with the same levels of assurance. As your dentist will explain, there are two main recommended procedures for whitening teeth, both of which are backed up by a solid body of scientific evidence.

Method 1: whitening strips

Tooth whitening strips are sold over-the-counter in some countries, including in the United States, but are only available from a registered dentist in the UK. The strips stick to the teeth and are applied once or twice each day over one or two weeks and then topped up as required. Whitening strips are therefore an affordable, safe and reliable way of getting positive results in the shorter term, and cost between £50 and £100 per pack. However, it’s worth noting that for whitening strips to work, your teeth need to be fairly straight (the strips don’t sit well on teeth that are crowded or crooked) so that the resulting whitening effect is similarly uniform. You also need to check whether you have any fillings, crowns or bridging work on the parts of your teeth that are visible when you smile - because the active agents in the whitening strips won’t have any effect on the porcelain or resin used in those treatments.

Method 2: whitening trays

Whitening trays are used to apply a special gel to the teeth until the desired shade of whiteness has been achieved, with a typical course of treatment costing between £300 and £500. After explaining how the procedure works, your dentist will take impressions or scans of your teeth and then fit the trays. You can then apply the gel using the trays every day for between two to four weeks, then top up as required. Dentists have been using whitening trays for more than 20 years and it has very reliable results. The degree of whitening achieved very much depends on the patient, both in terms of the natural colour of their teeth to begin with and the level of whiteness they would like to achieve. It is also extremely safe and repeatable. However, the whitening effect is not permanent and is likely to wane within 18 months.  


• This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph.