The Science Behind Teeth Whitening

Although teeth whitening solutions have been on the market for many many years, there are still quite a few patients who have heard myths about the process or are simply confused about how teeth whitening works and are concerned that it might not be good for their teeth. 

At the most basic level teeth whitening products utilize chemical compounds known as bleaching agents to whiten teeth. These compounds contain varying amounts of peroxides, most often hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. Peroxides are able to remove deep stains, as well as surface stains. In the video below, the American Dental Association provides an overview of the science behind how the teeth whitening process works:


“Many people ask me how to get their teeth whiter. Over time, teeth become stained due to a variety of reasons. Coffee, tea, red wine, and tobacco are the biggest villains. They contain chromogens, intensely pigmented molecules that can attach to your tooth’s enamel and causes surface stains, also called extrinsic stains. Surface stains can be removed with a whitening toothpaste that has mild silica abrasives, or cleaners, to gently scrub the enamel exterior of the tooth. But under that hard enamel is a softer, more porous area called dentin, that can soak up tougher, deeper intrinsic stains. Dentin also gets darker as we age. These deeper stains need peroxide bleaching agents to remove them. Common tooth bleaches are hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide. Carbamide peroxide becomes hydrogen peroxide when applied to the teeth, and then behaves the same way. Here’s how it works: Hydrogen peroxide acts as a strong, oxidizing bleaching agent that hits and breaks up those chromagens into smaller, less colored, more diffuse molecules. It’s that simple. This is the quickest way to whiten a deep, intrinsic stain. Teeth can be bleached both in a dentist’s office and at home, using safe concentrations of hydrogen or carbamide peroxide. The bleaching agent used by your dentist’s office is at a higher concentration and used for a shorter time than products for home use. Both are safe and effective for whitening teeth. Your dentist will form-fit a tray for you to apply the solution. Over-the-counter bleaches come with pre-formed trays that are not custom fit. Another method is whitening strips. Same idea: using hydrogen peroxide but without trays. Some people who use teeth whitening products experience tooth sensitivity that’s caused by the peroxide getting through the dentin to the nerve. In most cases, the sensitivity is just temporary and you can delay treatment, and then try again. However, overuse can damage the tooth enamel or irritate gums, so be sure to follow the directions. Teeth whitening works for most adults of any age, but it will not work on caps, veneers, crowns, or white fillings. Tooth darkening may also be caused by dental disease, some antibiotics, or injury to a tooth. In these cases, tooth whiteners will not work well, or at all. You should talk to your dentist before you start whitening.”

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