Lighten Up!

Whiter, more beautiful teeth can be yours. Here's how.

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It seems like everyone these days wants whiter teeth, including most of the patients who walk through the door of my dental practice. Teeth whitening is currently the most ubiquitous cosmetic dental procedure performed, and it’s no surprise considering the look is constantly emphasized by celebrities and their perfect white teeth.

I like to encourage most people to go for a natural look when seeking out lightening methods. There is such a thing as taking it too far, with some patients whitening like mad. However, it is nice to wipe away years’ worth of coffee, tea and food stains, and to remove discoloration that comes with age. A brighter smile can actually make you look years younger!

There are so many whitening methods available these days, from over-the-counter products and at-home remedies, to more potent in-office procedures. Most of these processes are safe and effective, as long as the steps are tailored specifically for you. How do you know which approach is best for you? Read on and find out how to get your pearly whites their brightest.

Look no further than…your refrigerator. The most natural—and tastiest—method is to eat foods that promote teeth whitening. Snacking on fruits and veggies with a high water content, including apples, carrots, celery and pears, increases salivary production—cleans the plaque and food and stains off of your teeth. This helps to prevent cavities and bacterial colonization, which also benefits the gums. In addition, eating acidic foods like citrus in moderation can keep your teeth whiter and brighter. But keep in mind that eating large quantities of acidic foods can wear away too much enamel. Strawberries are probably the most ideal natural brightener. They contain malic acid, which acts as a natural astringent to remove surface discoloration, and they also taste great! And, of course, foods high in calcium and vitamin D like milk and yogurt are excellent for strong bones and teeth, and, because they are white, they don’t stain.

Hit the drug store. If you still aren’t satisfied with the natural color of your teeth and want a boost into the lighter shades, check out the over-the-counter whitening products. There are so many to sift through—from strips and gels to toothpastes. The plethora of options can be overwhelming and they all work at varying degrees. Whitening toothpastes in general work only so-so. The gels and strips have some level of carbamide peroxide, which is the active ingredient in all teeth whitening products.  Products vary from the percentage of carbamide peroxide to how long to use it. Side effects may warrant varying degrees of sensitivity. It’s often a good idea to alternate days on which you perform these home treatments. Multiple uses of products over time with this active ingredient will result in whiter teeth, but periodic touch ups are required in order to maintain.

Seek help from the pros. To get your teeth their brightest yet, you might consider periodic whitening at your dentist’s office. This is the most expensive option, at about $500 to $900 for three sessions, but you’ll get much more drastic results than you can get with drugstore products. Your doctor will use lighteners that have the highest degree of the active ingredient carbamide peroxide, as well as state-of-the-art technology that uses a special light source. Your dentist will also isolate the teeth and gums during application, so that the results are precise. After two to four in-office treatments, you’ll see a very rapid change in tooth color. However, because the results can fade in as quickly as a few days, you might consider using over-the-counter products at home to maintain your beautiful new teeth.

Bottom line is, select the whitening method that works with your budget and schedule, and you’ll be on the road to a brighter smile in no time. And remember that white teeth are not a substitute for healthy teeth and gums, so in order to optimize the whitening effects, be sure to keep your teeth clean and healthy with proper brushing and flossing.

—Nisha Krishnaiah is a cosmetic dentist and the founder of Aesthetic Dentistry in San Francisco.