Improve your smile with our guide to teeth whitening

Want to add a sparkle to your smile? It’s now easier than ever to attain brighter whiter teeth. As we age, our teeth begin to lose their brightness, owing to natural changes in the colour of the dentine (the inner part of the tooth). This is made worse if you smoke and drink lots of tea, coffee or red wine, as these stain the teeth.

A build-up of plaque and use of some medicines, like antibiotics while the teeth are developing, can also make teeth appear yellow. As a result, teeth whitening procedures are growing in popularity. Once only the preserve of stars and celebrities, today most dental clinics offer this treatment. So, if you’ve ever wondered what teeth whitening involves and how much it costs, read on.

What is teeth whitening?

Teeth whitening involves bleaching your teeth to make them a lighter colour. It is an effective way to lighten the existing colour of your teeth by several shades. It cannot give you a complete colour change to brilliant white, but it can greatly enhance the appearance of your teeth. The process does not require the removal of the tooth enamel which protects your teeth, making it relatively safe.

Why consider teeth whitening?

Having yellowing teeth can make you unconfident in both your social and professional life. Teeth whitening can:

  • improve your confidence at work and increase your prospects
  • make you look and feel more attractive – the more you smile, the more attractive you appear to other people
  • encourage you to socialise, talk, laugh and generally engage more with others

Who can perform teeth whitening?

Teeth whitening is a form of dentistry. For health and safety reasons it should only be performed by a dentist or dental professional, such as a hygienist, on the prescription of a dentist. It is wise not to put your oral health at risk by having teeth whitening performed at a beauty salon. It is actually illegal for beauticians to perform teeth whitening without a dental professional present, so beware.

What does teeth whitening involve?

The most common method of teeth whitening is professional bleaching. The dentist takes an impression of your mouth and uses it to make a mouthguard. They will instruct you on how to use this with bleaching gel at home. After starting the treatment at the dentist, you will need to regularly apply the whitening product over two to four weeks, for around 30 mins to an hour each time. Stronger gels can be left on for up to eight hours, shortening the treatment time to around a week.

Another method growing in popularity is laser whitening, sometimes known as power whitening. This involves the dentist painting a bleaching product onto your teeth. A laser is then shone onto them to activate the whitening. The laser speeds up the reaction of the whitening product allowing the colour change to be achieved much more quickly. The whole process takes about an hour.

It is also possible to buy DIY home whitening kits. These are often less effective as they do not contain enough whitening product to really make a difference. What’s more, if the mouthguard has not been properly fitted by a dentist the bleaching gel could leak into your mouth. This could result in painful blisters.

There are also a number of teeth whitening toothpastes on the market. While these may be effective at removing staining, they cannot change the colour of your teeth. Having said that, they can help improve the appearance of your teeth and are useful after treatment to help the whitening last.

Is teeth whitening permanent?

In a word, no. Depending on the individual and their lifestyle, teeth whitening will last from about three months to up to three years. The whitening effect will not last so long if you smoke or drink red wine, tea, or coffee on a regular basis.

What are the risks?

The main risk is gum sensitivity to the chemicals used in teeth whitening. There is also a chance of burns to the gums and home whitening kits can cause damage to tooth enamel. Some people also find their teeth become sensitive to cold during treatment. This should stop once the treatment has finished.

When won’t teeth whitening work?

The whitening treatment does not work on dentures, crowns, fillings or veneers.

How much does teeth whitening cost?

The cost of teeth whitening will vary depending on the extent of the treatment required, the dentist’s fees, the materials used and the aftercare service. Laser treatment tends to be more expensive than gel tray whitening provided by the dentist.

Teeth whitening is rarely available on the NHS as it is classed as a lifestyle choice and so falls into the category of cosmetic dentistry. Owing to competition in the market for teeth whitening, special offers are often available at some dental clinics. As a rough guide, you can expect to pay around £250-400 for professional bleaching and up to £500 for laser whitening.

Written by Olivia Blake, a health and wellbeing specialist.