Teeth Whitening – The Basics

If you have stains and discolorations on your teeth, undergoing a teeth whitening procedure is a good option. Teeth whitening removes discolorations and stains and lightens the teeth. Teeth whitening is very popular because it can not only improve how your teeth look but also improve your overall appearance and personality. Teeth whitening is routinely performed at most dental clinics. In the recent years, a number of new teeth whitening techniques and products have been developed. Modern teeth whitening products provide effective and visible results if they are used properly.

It should be noted that tooth whitening is not a one-time procedure. It also doesn’t provide lasting results. Your teeth will eventually get discolored again. This is only natural. Maintaining proper oral hygiene can only postpone the discoloration. It is not possible to completely prevent it. If you want to maintain white and bright teeth, you will have to repeat the procedure from time to time.

Discoloration of teeth – An inevitable process

The outer layer of the tooth is known as the enamel. The layer beneath the enamel is known as dentin. The enamel layer is white and semitransparent. On the other hand, the dentin is yellow in color. Because the enamel is semitransparent, the dentin affects the overall color of the tooth significantly. The color of natural teeth is dependent on many factors. The thickness and smoothness of the enamel is determined by genetic factors. If the enamel is thin, more of the underlying dentin will be visible and therefore the teeth will be dull. The color of the teeth also depends on the smoothness of the enamel. If the enamel layer is smooth, it will reflect light better and therefore the teeth will appear brighter.

A thin layer known as the pellicle forms on the enamel every day. It picks up stains and leads to discoloration of the teeth. Some stains may also get embedded in the pores of the enamel. The following are the common causes of staining of teeth:

  • Chewing or smoking tobacco
  • Consuming colored liquids such as tea, coffee, cola and wine
  • Not following proper oral hygiene

The teeth also become discolored with age. As the body ages, various metabolic changes cause gradual breakdown of its various functions. One of the results is weakening of the enamel layer and simultaneously darkening of the dentin layer.

Sometimes stains may be present inside the layers of the teeth. These stains are known as intrinsic stains. One of the common causes of intrinsic stains is exposure to excessive fluoride during childhood. Exposure to tetracycline (an antibiotic) is another causative factor. If tetracycline is taken during pregnancy, it can result in teeth stains in the child. Stains may also develop due to injury to the teeth. Teeth whitening techniques do not provide effective results on intrinsic stains.

The prerequisites

The effectiveness of teeth whitening may be hampered by other dental conditions. If you have dental cavities, they need to be addressed before teeth whitening. Teeth whitening solution can penetrate dental cavities and reach the inner layers of the tooth. If you have receding gums, the exposed portion of the teeth may appear discolored. Teeth whitening products may not be effective against them. If you have dental cavities or receding gums, tooth whitening may make your teeth sensitive.

Teeth whitening procedures are generally performed in the dental office. However, it may also be done in your home. When the procedure is performed at the dentist’s office, the dentist may take a photograph of your teeth to enable him/her to monitor the progress of treatment. Your dentist will also perform other checks and try to ascertain the reasons for discoloration or staining. The dentist will then clean your teeth to remove food particles, bacteria and other substances that might have built up on the teeth. The whitening procedure will begin after this is done.

At-home tooth whitening kits come with trays or strips that hold the whitening gel. These have to be applied to the teeth daily for two or three weeks. Tooth whitening kits are usually available over-the-counter. However, it is advisable to contact a dentist before using these products. You should also follow the instructions meticulously to prevent damage to your teeth or mouth.

How does tooth whitening work

There are two types of teeth whitening procedures – vital and non-vital. Vital whitening is performed on teeth having live nerves. On the other hand, non-vital whitening is performed on teeth that have undergone root canal treatment and no longer have live nerves.

Vital whitening

Vital whitening involves the use of a gel that is applied directly to the teeth. The gel contains hydrogen peroxide which acts on the stains and removes them. When the procedure is performed at the dentist’s clinic, it allows for the application of a more powerful whitening agent. On the other hand, at-home dental whitening kits contain relatively weak whitening gel. The dentist may also use a laser to activate the gel and make the bleaching process faster.

In-office teeth whitening can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. Usually, it requires 2 to 3 appointments. The time and number of appointments required will depend on the type of bleaching agent used and also on the severity of the discoloration. Results will vary depending on the kind of stains.

First, the dentist will apply a protective substance to the gums. Then the whitening agent will be applied to the teeth. Certain whitening agents are activated by laser. If such agents are used, the dentist will shine the laser on your teeth after application. For in-home teeth whitening, your dentist will make impressions of your upper and lower teeth and make mouthpieces to fit them perfectly. It is important that the mouthpiece fit perfectly as the whitening agent needs to be in close contact with your teeth surfaces. You may have to wear the mouthpiece for several hours every day. Usually you will see positive results within one or two weeks. However, if you have more stains or discoloration, you may have to continue wearing the mouthpieces for as long as four weeks. Over-the-counter teeth whitening kits come with trays that may not fit as securely as the kind you get from your dentist.

Non-vital whitening

Vital whitening may not be useful if it tooth has had root canal treatment because the stains are located inside the tooth. In such cases, a different kind of approach that whitens the tooth from the inside is needed. To achieve this, the whitening agent is placed inside the tooth and a temporary filling is made over it. This is left in place for a few days. Depending on the amount of discoloration, this may have to be performed only or many times until the desired shade is obtained.


Teeth whitening procedures do not provide permanent results. Eventually, the stains will return. If you smoke or consume beverages such as tea or coffee, the whiteness will start fading in just a few months. To maintain the whiteness, you will have to undergo the process once in every 6 to 12 months. Using over-the-counter teeth whitening kits, you can whiten your teeth as often as required. However, it is advisable to take advice from your dentist.

Risks of teeth whitening

Teeth whitening procedures generally do not have any serious side effects. Your teeth may become more sensitive for some time and you may experience gum irritation. However, these side effects will go away after some time. If you’re pregnant, it is advisable to postpone the procedure until after delivery. The effect of whitening agents on fetal development is not known. If you have any doubts regarding the procedure, you should consult your dentist.

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