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Teeth whitening: a primer

Watch any Hollywood blockbuster, TV drama or product advertisement and you’ll notice they all have one thing in common—everyone has perfect white teeth. Real-life people are looking to attain that same dazzling smile, and there are a myriad of products that can help. However, you need to understand what is realistic and what the potential side-effects may be. Living Healthy offers the following guide to help you.

What causes my teeth to darken?

Often this is a natural part of aging. Other factors such as smoking and drinking certain liquids, especially coffee, tea and wine, can stain teeth. Certain medications, such antihistamines, antipsychotic drugs and drugs for high blood pressure, can also discolour teeth.

How can I whiten my teeth?

Whitening mouthwash, toothpaste and floss as well as whitening strips are all products available from your drugstore. Your dentist can also provide in-office treatments or make you customized take-home trays.

One of the most common ways to make teeth whiter is to use a product with bleach. The bleach, which contains peroxide, will actually change the colour of your tooth by removing deep stains as well as surface discoloration.

A whitening process that uses bleach can be safely administered by a dentist. According to Health Canada, home tooth-whitening kits are similar to those a dental professional would use, but the concentration of active ingredients is lower. Higher concentrations are permitted for in-office formulas because they are applied by a dentist who has precise control over the application and understands how it works.

Whatever bleaching product or process you select, it will only whiten your natural tooth enamel. Crowns, veneers, bridges, fillings or dentures will not change colour.

Many whitening products do not contain bleach. Instead, they contain ingredients that act to remove surface stains. Whitening toothpastes, for example, often fall in this category.

How long will my teeth stay whiter?

The length of time depends on the process you used and your lifestyle.

For smokers and heavy coffee drinkers, for example, whitening will not last as long. In fact, the results could be diminished within a month. For others, whitening could last a year.

To keep teeth as white as possible, brush soon after drinking coffee, tea, red wine or any food, such as blueberries, that can stain teeth. You can also try adding milk to your tea or coffee. Butting out is also beneficial. Tobacco stains, including those from chew tobacco, are difficult to remove.

What are the risks associated with whitening my teeth?

Talk with your dentist about possible side-effects, if you are likely to experience problems, and what can be done to alleviate issues if they occur. Two common side-effects are tooth sensitivity and root damage. The former is the more common. Many people find they develop a sensitivity to cold during the teeth-whitening process or afterwards. The sensitivity does not usually persist for long.

Reported side-effects also include discomfort in the gums, a sore throat, and white patches on the gum line. These are usually temporary and disappear within a few days. If they persist, contact your dentist.

Many people are concerned about the effect of peroxide on the hardness or minerals in their tooth enamel. Research over the last decade has found that the use of either hydrogen or carbamide peroxide to help bleach teeth has had no adverse effects on tooth enamel.

If you have any oral infections or gum disease you should talk to your dentist before using a tooth whitener.

Health Canada advises people who purchase a tooth whitening kit to follow the instructions on the product and pay attention to any precautionary statements.

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