Your smile is one of the first things someone may notice about you. So, it’s no surprise that when you flash a grin, you want to show healthy-looking teeth.

That’s why you may be wondering if teeth-whitening techniques can really help get rid of stains and discoloration. But are at-home teeth-whitening products safe? Can they damage your teeth? Can teeth whitening lead to tooth sensitivity? And rather than using at-home teeth-whitening products, should you consider paying for professional teeth whitening?

Here, we offer an overview of some common at-home products and professional teeth-whitening processes. When you understand why your teeth might be looking dull, how teeth-whitening processes work and the possible pitfalls of teeth-whitening options, you’ll be ready to select the best teeth-whitening option for you.

How teeth lose their whiteness

There are many reasons teeth can become discolored. Some reasons include medication side effects, genetics, teeth injury and trauma, and medical treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. But most teeth discoloration comes from prolonged exposure to staining agents like coffee, tea, soda and tobacco.

In addition, as we age, the protective enamel on the outer surface of our teeth begins to wear away. When enamel erodes, teeth become thinner. This makes teeth more translucent, which can make them appear grayer.

Also, tooth dentin tends to grow as we age. Dentin is a hard tissue beneath tooth enamel. When it expands, the pulp tissue at the center of each tooth shrinks. This process increases the opacity of teeth, making them appear more yellowish.

How to whiten your teeth at home

There are many at-home teeth-whitening products on the market. Some are quite simple, like toothpastes with ingredients that specifically address teeth whitening. Others are more advanced, using devices like trays, strips and tooth “paint” brushes.

Whitening toothpaste

American Dental Association (ADA)-approved whitening toothpastes are a simple, economical way to whiter teeth. Available in almost any drug or grocery store, they can be a good first step when teeth could use a brightening boost. But before you buy, it’s important to understand how they work.

How does whitening toothpaste work to whiten teeth?

Whitening toothpastes don’t offer “in-depth” teeth whitening. Instead, some contain abrasives that help break down surface stains and polish tooth surfaces to restore whiteness.

A few whitening toothpastes may even include a bluing agent. Like old-fashioned laundry detergents that used “bluing” dyes to help white clothes appear whiter, these toothpastes help reduce the appearance of yellowed teeth.

However, with whitening toothpastes alone, you generally won’t see dramatic changes to the whiteness of your teeth. Plus, it may not be a good idea to use them as your regular toothpaste for a long period of time – but we’ll talk more about that later.

Over-the-counter teeth-whitening strips, paint-on gels and gel trays

Whitening strips, paint-on gels and gel trays (used to apply gel to teeth with a crescent-shaped tray that allows the gel to surround each tooth) are some of the more advanced home teeth-whitening products.

How do over-the-counter teeth-whitening strips and gels help whiten teeth?

Teeth-whitening strips and gels have the potential to achieve better results in a quicker time frame than whitening tooth paste. That’s because strips and gels are applied to your teeth for an extended period of time, which offers a more concentrated whitening process – also called the “bleaching process” by some.

And what is doing all this bleaching as the strip or gel works to whiten your teeth? The main ingredient that’s common in nearly all over-the-counter teeth-whitening strips and gels is hydrogen peroxide. (It’s also present in some toothpastes.)

Hydrogen peroxide does double duty when whitening your teeth. One of its two roles is to act as an oxidizing agent that allows it to diffuse through and permeate spaces in enamel, allowing for under-the-surface bleaching.

Once inside the tooth, hydrogen peroxide naturally releases oxygen, which oxidizes colored compounds in the tooth to create a whitening effect. However, it’s important to know this process could cause some negative side effects, which we talk more about below.

At-home natural teeth-whitening methods

There are several natural teeth-whitening methods. But it’s important to know, some of these methods are not supported by scientific research.

Baking soda for teeth whitening

Baking soda is one common household product that can actually pack some teeth-whitening power, according to the ADA. It’s a mild abrasive that can help remove stains from the surface of your teeth.

An easy way to try baking soda is buying a toothpaste that contains baking soda as a whitening agent. You can also mix a scoop straight from the box with some water to create your own paste and brush with it.

However, brushing with a baking soda and water mixture shouldn’t be done daily – only about once a week. It’s also strongly recommended that you don’t keep it on your teeth for more than 2 minutes and that you thoroughly rinse your mouth after use. This can help reduce the risk of damaging your tooth enamel or gum irritation.

Eating more fruits and veggies

Foods that are believed to have teeth-whitening properties mainly include fruit like apples, strawberries, pineapple and watermelon, as well as crunchy veggies like celery and carrots – which are said to scrub teeth as they’re eaten and stimulate saliva.

While there may not be scientific evidence to support this, dentists will always encourage you to eat more fruits and veggies as part of a balanced diet, so it might pay to give them a try.

Some say vinegar can help whiten teeth, but there is very little evidence to support this. And actually, the acids in vinegar may even be harmful.

Food and drinks that can contribute to teeth stains

Some food and drinks contain substances that can contribute to discoloration or yellowing of your teeth. Coffee and tea contain tannins that can stick to your teeth and cause stains. Drinks and foods that are high in acidity can erode enamel, leading to discoloration. Juice, energy drinks, soda pop, red wine, tomato-based sauces and vinegar can also contribute to teeth discoloration.

With regular brushing and visits to your dentist, you don’t have to give up your favorite food and drink. However, if avoiding discoloration is important to you, consider limiting the items above, using a straw, or brushing immediately after consuming.

“Natural” teeth whitening techniques that aren’t recommended

Dentists do not recommend using hydrogen peroxide straight from the bottle to whiten teeth. That’s because it’s hard to control the level of concentration, and you could ultimately damage your teeth or burn your gums.

The same goes for vinegar. There is no significant evidence that vinegar – while a natural cleaning agent – can actually clean and brighten your teeth. But we do know that the acids in vinegar may damage your teeth if used as a whitener.

You may have heard of “oil pulling” to whiten teeth, which involves moving a type of oil – usually coconut oil – around your mouth for 10-15 minutes. Though coconut oil may have benefits for gums and aid in plaque removal, there isn’t strong evidence that it helps to whiten teeth.

Activated charcoal is another trendy ingredient for teeth whitening. It comes in a powder form or can be an ingredient in a toothpaste. While activated charcoal can help remove surface stains and make your teeth look whiter, it’s also abrasive and can wear down enamel, leading to discoloration over time. So, activated charcoal shouldn’t be used long-term.

Our teeth are tough, but they’re not indestructible. So before starting an at-home teeth-whitening process, it’s a good idea to talk with your dentist about what they may recommend.

Some of the risks of at-home teeth-whitening products and methods can include:

Teeth whitening can cause tooth sensitivity

Tooth sensitivity is very common with many teeth-whitening processes, including ones that involve hydrogen peroxide (such as over-the-counter gels and strips) and acidic food like pineapple and strawberries.

The good news is that teeth sensitivity is usually temporary. If your teeth become sensitive during teeth whitening – either to the tooth-whitening product, to certain foods, or hot or cold temperatures – a reliable fix is to simply take a break from whitening your teeth.

If not used properly, teeth-whitening products can inflame or damage gums

Gum inflamation and discomfort can be a common concern for people who are considering whitening their teeth. Usually, gum injuries from teeth whitening happen when significant contact occurs between the gums and hydrogen peroxide-based whiteners like gels and strips.

Depending on the degree of inflammation, it’s best to discontinue the use of the product all together, delay use or adjust how you’re using the product to reduce seepage from the product onto the gums.

Prolonged use of abrasive teeth-whitening products may damage tooth enamel

Any teeth whitening method that uses abrasives – namely whitening toothpastes – has the potential to damage the enamel. This is called tooth abrasion.

Since abrasives polish the surface of teeth, they naturally result in whiter teeth when staining and other discolorants are removed. But the removal or reduction in surface stains can only whiten teeth so much. So at some point, the prolonged use of abrasive teeth-whitening methods (such as tube after tube after tube of whitening toothpaste) may no longer be removing stains but rather wearing on your enamel.

Professional teeth-whitening options

Before starting any teeth-whitening process at home, we recommend you talk with your dentist to see what they may recommend for your specific goals. But if you’re concerned about the safety of over-the-counter methods, or you’ve tried some and not gotten the results you’re hoping for, professional teeth whitening may be an option.

The first step in whiter teeth with the help of a dentist is to keep up with your regular dental checkups and teeth cleanings. For most people, this is recommended every 6 months.

When it comes to professional teeth-whitening methods, there are generally two options:

  • Custom trays for at-home whitening, where an impression of your teeth is taken to create a tray that will fit your mouth perfectly
  • In-office whitening, where you’ll need to go to your dentist for whitening treatments

In both cases, dentists are able to use a specially formulated concentration of a whitening agent – either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide depending on the technique.

Specifically for whitening with hydrogen peroxide, a dentist can control the exact length of time your teeth are exposed to the chemical, as well as the quantity used. They can also use professional methods to prevent chemical/gum contact and inflammation.

Dentists can also combine your teeth bleaching with professional tooth polishing. The result is teeth that are usually whiter than they would be from an over-the-counter product.

Can you whiten your teeth if you’ve had dental work done?

If you’ve had any dental restoration work like cavity fillings, crowns, bridges or veneers, it’s important to know that teeth bleaching products will not whiten those materials.

This doesn’t mean that teeth whitening isn’t an option, but it’s not as straightforward. So, it’s best to talk with your dentist about your options.

Learn more about safe teeth whitening by talking to a dentist

Again, before starting a teeth-whitening routine at home, it can be a good idea to chat with your dentist. This is a topic they’re asked about all the time, and they can help you decide which at-home options may be best for your goals, and when professional whitening may be a better option.