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Teeth Whitening: What They Don’t Tell You

Teeth Whitening: What They Don’t Tell You
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As if we don’t have enough to deal with watching crow’s feet appear and upper arms that jiggle no matter how many curls we do, there is another sign of aging that tips off the world we aren’t 20 anymore: yellowing teeth.

To give credit where it is due, our teeth have seen us through half a century (or more) of black coffee, red wine and possibly even packs of cigarettes and are still hanging in there, but blindingly white they aren’t. So I decided to cough up several hundred dollars to get mine whitened at the dentist and discovered there are a few things I didn’t know:

Your dentist will likely apply a whitening product to your teeth and then use a special light or laser to activate it. You will have your mouth held open (I felt like a Kentucky Derby contender) with a rubber shield for a l-o-n-g time. The longer you can take it, the better the result. My dentist called the time periods (usually 30 minutes or so) “phases”. If I wanted “movie star teeth”, I had to last through three phases. I made it through two.

Why you might have trouble making it through: Midpoint through the second phase, I felt a deep pain in the “marrow” of my front tooth. This pain got worse until I called a halt. My teeth may not have competed with Glee’s Jane Lynch, but they were several shades whiter.

It keeps hurting: Another gift of getting older is that our gums may recede and therefore our nerves are more exposed, creating increased sensitivity. Though my dentist said I might need to “take a pain reliever” at home, in case my teeth felt more sensitive, morphine probably would have been a better choice. For 24 hours after the treatment, the pain in my mouth was severe. I might have had the procedure anyway, but I wish I had been warned.

It doesn’t work on bridges, implants or other artificial dental work: I scheduled my whitening just before I had bridges made. This way, the bridges could be matched to the shade of my newly-whitened natural teeth.

It takes more than one visit: Usually the whitening is one (or more) session at which the dentist will take an impression for your custom take-home tray. You’ll need to come back to pick it up and have its fit checked.

It isn’t permanent: Alas, teeth whitening doesn’t last, particularly if you resume bad habits like eating and drinking staining foods. Your take-home trays come with special whitening gels. It takes an hour to do an in-home treatment and the gel is not cheap, so my dentist suggested I only use the trays for “special occasions”. Be sure to ask for sensitivity gel as well. I put both the whitening and sensitivity gels in the trays to head off possible pain. Your dentist can also provide super-sensitivity toothpaste that puts Sensodyne to shame.

It’s not for everybody:
•  If you have cavities: you need to get them treated first. The whitening solution penetrates into any existing decay and the inner part of your tooth, making sensitivity worse.
• If you have brownish or grayish teeth or purple stains:< Your teeth may be darkened by taking the antibiotic tetracycline as a kid. Whitening may not work for you at all. Ask your dentist if a better solution for you might not be bonding, veneers or crowns.
• If you have unrealistic expectations: Expect the color of your teeth to end up a little whiter than the whites of your eyes. (Your favorite TV star probably has veneers.) Light-activated whitening conducted in your dentist’s office can make your teeth three to eight shades lighter.
• It’s probably safe: Most whitening products used for in-office procedures have been awarded the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance, meaning the product has met ADA guidelines of safety and effectiveness. But when it comes to the take-home products, only those containing 10% carbamide peroxide and 35% hydrogen peroxide have received the ADA Seal. (No over the counter products you pick up at the drugstore have been endorsed.) For a list of whitening products that have the Seal, visit

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