Coffee, cola, and cigarettes are the usual suspects responsible for discolored teeth. But many nonsmoking, noncoffee-drinking, moderate soda-drinking people find that their teeth become discolored over the years. Luckily there are several options for returning the gleam to your smile, but you’ll need to talk with your dentist to see if you’re a good candidate for any of the whitening procedures.

Teeth Whitening Success

The success of teeth whitening procedures depends on your teeth. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), bleaching tends to work well for yellowish colored teeth but not as well for brownish colored teeth, and is even less likely to be effective on gray teeth. In addition, bleaching procedures don’t change the color of bonding or tooth-colored fillings. If you have any of these items in your front teeth, they will stand out as a different color from your newly whitened smile. Porcelain veneers and dental bonding are options—albeit expensive—for people with bonding or tooth-colored fillings. Bonding costs $300 to $700 per tooth and veneers cost $700 to $1200 per tooth.

In-Office Bleaching

Your dentist can bleach your teeth in his office in about one hour, but you may need several visits. The bleaching solution a dentist may use for in-office procedures contains between 15%-35% hydrogen peroxide. As of December 2007, these products are no longer eligible for the ADA seal of approval. The cost can range from $200-$700.

First, the dentist applies a protective gel or rubber shield to protect your gums and other mouth tissues from the bleaching agent. Then he applies the bleaching agent to your teeth. He may also direct a special light on your teeth to enhance the action of the bleaching agent. Although lasers are sometimes used to enhance bleaching action, the ADA has not given its Seal of Approval to any products or procedures involving lasers.

At-Home Bleaching

You can buy your own home-bleaching kit at the drug store or you can get a custom kit from your dentist. These bleaching solutions are typically gels containing between 10%-22% peroxide. The gel is in a flexible tray that you wear in your mouth. The benefit of getting a kit from your dentist is that he can custom fit the tray to your mouth, maximizing contact of the solution to your teeth. Another delivery method is a coating of gel on flexible strips.

Solutions provided by your dentist generally are applied for a few hours a day for one to two weeks. Drugstore products may be applied twice a day for two weeks, or even overnight for 1-2 weeks. For at-home use, the ADA has given its Seal of Approval only to the 10% peroxide gels provided by dentists. At-home bleaching kits cost $200–$500.

Whitening Toothpastes

All toothpastes act as mild abrasives to remove some stains on the surface of teeth, but they don’t actually alter the color of tooth enamel. However, some whitening toothpastes contain special polishing agents that enhance stain removal. Several over-the-counter whitening toothpastes carry the ADA Seal of Approval.

Side Effects

Common side effects of bleaching procedures include:

  • Tooth sensitivity, which is usually temporary and subsides once you have stopped the treatments
  • Gum irritation due to an ill-fitting tray or contact with the bleaching solution, which also tends to subside after treatments have ended

Contact your dentist if you have any side effects.