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The vast majority of us don’t have teeth that sparkle like Vanna White. Part of this is our lifestyle and hygiene routine but a lot of it also comes down to genetics.
“A lot of people will naturally have white teeth no matter what they ingest,” says Dr. Aragona Giuseppe, GP and Medical Advisor at Prescription Doctor.
Teeth get their whiteness from enamel, the outer layer of the tooth. If your enamel is naturally thin, the deeper tooth structure, called dentin, will start to show through, making your teeth look darker.
This inner dentin layer may also be stained or discolored. This type of discoloration is what experts call “intrinsic stains.” Then there’s the discoloration that occurs from external factors, called “extrinsic stains.”
“Stains, discoloration and yellowing are caused by pigmented food, drinks, and substances,” says Giuseppe. “Not looking after your teeth and your oral health will also contribute to yellowing.”
These lifestyle choices can make a big difference in avoiding discoloration:
- Don’t smoke or chew tobacco.
- Minimize drinking coffee and wine, or drink them out of a straw for less contact with the teeth.
- Brush twice daily and soon after darkening foods like coffee, wine, berries, and soda.
- Get regular teeth cleanings every 6 months.
- Eat plenty of calcium for enamel health.
In addition to sticking to good dental hygiene, there are measures you can take, from DIY to in-office, to help get the gleam back into your teeth. Though we do want to make clear, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to teeth whitening and results vary from person to person.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any conclusive DIY teeth whitening methods that work for everyone. However, there are a few methods that have been shown to decrease plaque and bacteria, which supports overall dental hygiene and may have a whitening effect.
Keep in mind, these approaches will likely need to be done daily for many weeks to see results.
The Ayurvedic practice of oil pulling involves swishing oil around your mouth much like you would standard mouthwash. As a whitening method, the idea is that oil pulls out bacteria that can turn into plaque, resulting in the yellowing of the teeth.
We recommend using coconut oil as the taste will be more tolerable.
How to oil pull
- Put about a tablespoon of coconut oil in your mouth.
- Swish and swirl the oil around your mouth and over your teeth, ideally for 15 to 20 minutes (if this sounds like an impossibly long time, try watching a show or finding something to clean while you pull).
- Spit out the oil, then brush your teeth.
Yup, you can brush with straight baking soda. Though, according to research, it works best as a whitener if you add it to toothpaste.
“Baking soda is known to have natural whitening properties, which is why it’s a popular ingredient in a lot of toothpastes,” explains Lead Dentist at SmileDirectClub’s, Dr. Jeffrey Sulitzer, DMD. “It creates an alkaline environment in your mouth, which helps prevent bacteria from growing. This remedy will not whiten your teeth overnight, but you may notice a difference in the appearance of your teeth over time.”
How to use baking soda
- Mix 1 teaspoon of baking soda with a drop or two of water (until it forms a thick paste).
- Brush as normal.
Apple cider vinegar
The main ingredient in apple cider vinegar, acetic acid, kills bacteria that could cause discoloration.
“However, the acid in vinegar can erode the enamel on your teeth,” says Sulitzer. “So I would proceed with caution on this one. If you do wish to use this method, I would recommend not [doing] it every day and make sure you rinse your mouth with water after.”
How to use apple cider vinegar
- Combine 1 tablespoon of water and 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.
- Swish for 1 minute like you would with mouthwash.
DIY methods to stay away from
These popular internet searches for DIY whitening solutions aren’t proven to help and may actually do more harm than good.
- Scrubs including activated charcoal and Kaolin clay. The ADA warns that non-dentist-approved charcoal powder is too abrasive and may cause enamel erosion.
- Strawberries. One study linked the mixture of strawberries/baking soda to a decrease in surface hardness of teeth.
- Fruit peels. The ADA advises against rubbing lemon, orange, and banana peels on your teeth as the high acid content in many fruits can end up hurting your teeth.
If you like saving money and not putting on pants, you might want to give one of these at-home methods a shot. Just make sure to read the label and tick to the instructions.
“Over-the-counter treatments are a great way to achieve a whiter smile,” says Sulitzer. “You can still achieve similar results [to in-office treatments] in the comfort of your own home.”
The easiest and most cost effective OTC product is also the easiest to add to your routine: whitening toothpaste. These toothpastes use baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, or other abrasives like silica to remove surface stains. Note that it can take several weeks to see results.
Effective whitening toothpastes
These toothpastes contain whitening agents that are proven to improve the color of teeth.
- Colgate Optic White Whitening Toothpaste
- Whitening ingredient: hydrogen peroxide
- Get it via Amazon
- Tom’s of Maine Luminous White Toothpaste
- Whitening ingredient: silica
- Arm & Hammer Advance White Extreme Whitening
- Whitening ingredient: baking soda and peroxide (gentle formula for sensitive teeth)
One of the most popular options is teeth whitening strips, which you can buy from drug stores and usually cost around $50 to $100. As with the toothpastes, the active ingredient in these types of kits is typically hydrogen peroxide.
As we mentioned above, Giuseppe cautions it’s important not to exceed recommended usage on the label as this can lead to tooth sensitivity, dental issues, and wearing away of the enamel.
Safe at-home whitening products
To ensure your experience with at-home treatments is as safe as possible, we advise only using whitening products approved by the American Dental Association.
While it’s definitely more pricey, getting your teeth whitened in-office offers the safest and quickest results.
According to Sulitzer, in-office treatments are more effective because they use a higher level of peroxide.
Zoom and boost whitening methods
Zoom whitening can be done as quickly as 30 minutes using a laser and a 25 percent hydrogen peroxide gel. The Opalescence Boost method also uses a hydrogen peroxide based power bleaching gel but it takes about 1 to 2 hours to perform.
These teeth-whitening methods can last anywhere from 1 to 2 years, depending on your teeth.
Both procedures costs about $500, depending on your dentist and insurance.
With tray whitening, a mouth guard-looking tray is moulded to fit your mouth by the dentist, explains Giuseppe.
You then take the tray home and use a syringe to fill it with peroxide based bleaching paste, which is placed over your teeth at night for 1 to several hours.
You do this daily for 2 to 4 weeks. “Then, you check back in at the end to ensure the trays worked,” says Giuseppe. Ask your dentist for specific instructions if you choose to whiten this way.
Cost depends on the clinic and how much whitening is purchased. Most run from $400 to $700.
Finally, there are take-home kits given to you by the dentist. These are ready-made kits of trays that often contain a more concentrated level of bleach than OTC whitening kits.
Expect to see results in 1 to 2 weeks and spend about $150 to $200.
The effectiveness of a teeth whitening method ultimately comes down to what kind of discoloration you have (extrinsic v intrinsic). And the best way to answer that question is to get assessed by a professional.
Remember, no teeth whitening method is a sure thing. But on the bright side, how white your teeth are is a lot less noticeable than you might think.
Alexa Erickson is a California-based writer who specializes in travel, beauty, health, wellness, and lifestyle. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Shape, Martha Stewart, mindbodygreen, Real Simple, and more. Follow her adventures @living_by_lex and check out her blog, livingbylex.com.