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Teeth Whitening: An Overview

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Teeth whitening was invented in the 1960s by a dentist called William Klusmier, after he had instructed a patient to use an antiseptic called carbamide peroxide to help his gums heal. The patient used the antiseptic with an orthodontic positioner overnight and when he returned to the dentist, it was found that in addition to helping his gums heal, it had also made his teeth whiter.

This accidental discovery led Klusmier to start using the peroxide to lighten people’s teeth and between 1970-1975 he presented his findings at various dental meetings. Other dentists saw his work and the practice of tooth whitening took off.

Reasons Why Tooth Whitening May Be Indicated

Teeth get darker the older you get, so you may want to whiten them in order to look younger. Lots of tea and coffee can also stain teeth, as can red wine.
Fizzy drinks and fruit juices can gradually erode the enamel of your teeth, causing them to appear more yellow.

If you smoke, this can also stain your teeth, although the success of the procedure may be limited in smokers. Teeth whitening normally lasts around two to three years before you have to repeat it, but it will be less in smokers -- it may be best to try and quit before you pay for whitening.

Discolored teeth can also occur as a result of illness and of medications. If a child under the age of eight is given tetracycline antibiotics, this can cause the teeth to yellow. Other trigger medications include antihistamines, high blood pressure medication and anti-psychotics.

Paradoxically, dental products may also discolor your teeth. If you use mouthwashes containing cetylpyridinium chloride it can stain. Mercury amalgam fillings can also make your teeth go gray and if you use fluoride too much, such as fluoride toothpaste, mouthwash or supplements then it can stain your teeth.

How is Teeth Whitening Done?

A dentist puts a gel on your gums, or a rubber shield to protect them from the peroxide and then it will be applied using a tray that fits into your mouth. You would normally come back for a second appointment to have the treatment repeated, although the whitening is noticeable from the first session.

You can also get DIY whitening kits to use at home with a dentist’s supervision. This is less expensive. It costs around $500 to have it done at the dental office, whereas it is around $50-100 to do it at home.

What about Side Effects?

You can get sore gums after the treatment, as well as tooth sensitivity to cold. You may also have white patches on your gums or have a sore throat.

According to Science Daily, free radicals are generated during the teeth whitening process which has been implicated with the development of cancer in mice and hamsters. A type of bowel cancer can also occur if teeth whitening products are chronically ingested. This is more likely with at-home whitening kits that are not used with dentist’s supervision.

The dentist will custom-fit the tray which will minimize leakage of the peroxide. If the tray isn’t custom-made, you are likely to ingest more peroxide. With DIY kits studied, less than 50 percent of the peroxide was still in the tray after one hour, meaning the person had ingested more than half of it.

Although studies into cancer and teeth whitening products did NOT prove an absolute link, research authors stated that as they were capable of causing free radicals and had "carcinogenic potential", further research should be done with people that have teeth whitening.


Professional Teeth Whitening, The Hospital Group. Web. 15 December 2011. http://www.thehospitalgroup.org/teeth-whitening.php

Dental Health and Tooth Discoloration, WebMD. Web. 15 December 2011. http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/tooth-discoloration

TOOTH WHITENING, National Public Health Service for Wales, NPHS Briefing Papers: Dental Public Health Tooth Whitening. Amended January 2007.
Teeth Whitening Costs, Cosmetic Dentistry. Web. 15 December 2011. http://www.aboutcosmeticdentistry.com/procedures/teeth_whitening/cost.html

Do Teeth Whiteners Lead To Oral Cancer? Science Daily. Web. 15 December 2011. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/08/040810093848.htm

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting.

Reviewed December 15, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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