What Is Teeth Bleaching? Does It Work?

Medically Reviewed by a
Licensed DDS

Table of Contents

  1. Bleaching vs Whitening
  2. Teeth Bleaching Variations
  3. Professional Bleaching
  4. Over-the-Counter Options
  5. Teeth Bleaching Success
  6. Potential Risks
  7. References

Everyone wants a whiter, brighter smile, right? Teeth bleaching or whitening can help to accomplish this.

There are many things that can stain your teeth. Teeth bleaching can successfully remove many of these stains and therefore lighten the color of your teeth.

Teeth bleaching is done professionally at a dentist’s office, at home with professional products, or through over-the-counter products. The level of success with bleaching will depend on the severity of your stains and what method you use to bleach them.

The Difference Between Bleaching & Whitening

Most of the time, teeth whitening and teeth bleaching are considered to be the same thing. There is a subtle difference, however.

With whitening, the goal is to restore the natural color of your teeth. With bleaching, your teeth are whitened beyond their natural color.

In general, the terms teeth bleaching and teeth whitening are used interchangeably. But in order to be considered bleaching, an actual bleaching agent like peroxide must be used.

Forms of Teeth Bleaching

There are a multitude of teeth bleaching products and methods on the market. It can feel overwhelming to consider all the options.

In 2019, nearly 40 million people in the United States used a tooth whitening product. Teeth bleaching is either done under the direction of a dental professional or with over-the-counter products.

Options for teeth bleaching can include:

  • Professional dental in-office whitening/bleaching.
  • Prescription at-home teeth bleaching trays.
  • Bleaching gels.
  • Whitening strips.
  • Whitening toothpaste.
  • Whitening pens.

Bleaching that is done by your dentist or through a prescription is going to contain a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide (the bleaching agents). As a result, it is more likely to work faster and with fewer treatments than over-the-counter applications and products that are used at home. The results from these doctor-monitored treatments tend to be more dramatic.

Professional bleaching techniques typically work more quickly and last longer than over-the-counter products.

Professional Bleaching Treatments

Teeth bleaching done at the dentist office can use a variety of applications, but they essentially place a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide of carbamide peroxide on your teeth and then use a specialized light or laser to break down the stains. A professional tooth whitening procedure typically takes about an hour and uses a bleach concentration of 25 to 40 percent.

In-office teeth bleaching procedures are often followed up with custom-fitted trays that you can take home to reapply the bleach in future applications. You can also get prescription bleaching trays to use at home under the direction of your dentist. These will often have a lower concentration of bleach than the in-office procedure uses but a higher concentration than drugstore options.

Over-the-Counter Options

Most over-the-counter teeth bleaching or whitening options contain a much lower concentration of hydrogen peroxide (or carbamide peroxide). On average, they only have between 5 and 6 percent of the bleaching agent in them.

Toothpaste
Whitening toothpastes use mostly abrasive materials to remove stains, but many also contain some of the bleaching agent hydrogen peroxide as well.
Gels and Whitening Pens
Paint on applications use a low concentration of hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, but your saliva can often break most of this down before it can be extremely effective.
Strips
Teeth whitening strips are placed on your teeth for a specific amount of time each day, allowing the bleaching agent to have direct contact with your teeth. They also have a low concentration of hydrogen peroxide compared to prescription options, however.
Tooth Whitening Kits
Over-the-counter kits often contain trays to use daily to whiten your teeth, but they are not custom-fit to your teeth. The bleaching agent levels are much lower than dentist-provided at-home bleaching kits.
Gels, at-home trays, whitening strips, toothpastes, and teeth whitening pens can all lighten your teeth a little. These over-the-counter products will generally take much longer, require more applications, and be less effective than procedures that are prescribed and performed by dentists.

Success of Teeth Bleaching

Teeth bleaching, especially under the direction of a dentist, can be extraordinarily successful and effective. The [efficacy of teeth bleaching does depend on several factors](<https://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/About the ADA/Files/adahouseofdelegateswhitening_report.ashx>), such as:

  • What caused the staining in the first place and the type of stain.
  • Your age.
  • Treatment time and frequency.
  • Concentration of the bleaching agent used.

Teeth whitening is reported to be effective and safe when done as directed. The best route is involving your dentist in the process. While professional options are more expensive than do-it-yourself options, they get better results. As with most things, you get what you pay for.

Potential Pitfalls

Teeth bleaching and whitening can cause your gums to become irritated and your teeth to be extra sensitive, the ADA warns. Tooth sensitivity and gingival irritation are typically short-lived. They will usually go away a few days after the treatment is finished.

Bleaching your teeth can cause some breakdown in your healthy enamel, and it is not effective on tooth restorations. A few years after a bleaching procedure, your teeth will start to become discolored again and require additional treatments.

The more concentrated the bleaching agent, the higher the potential risks. Talk to your dentist about the best form of teeth bleaching for your smile.

References

Tooth Bleaching. (January 2017). Harvard Health Publishing.

Use of Tooth Whiteners in the U.S. 2011-2023. (August 2019). Statista Research Department.

So You Want Whiter Teeth? (June 2016). On Health.

Navigating the ‘Isle of Confusion’ to Whiten Your Teeth. (August 2017). NPR.

A Review of the Efficacy of Tooth Bleaching. (2009). Dent Update.

[Teeth Whitening/Bleaching: Treatment Considerations for Dentists and Their Patients](<https://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/About the ADA/Files/adahouseofdelegateswhitening_report.ashx>). (November 2010). ADA Council on Scientific Affairs.

Tooth Whitening: What We Now Know. (June 2014). Journal of Evidence Based Dental Practices.

Oral Health Topics. (August 2019). American Dental Association (ADA).

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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