If you’re after brighter, whiter teeth, you’re in good company. “Every day, at least one patient in my office asks about whitening,” says Kimberly Wright, a dentist at Advance Dental Arts Center in West Linn, Ore.
As we age, the enamel on our teeth naturally thins, which makes them more prone to pesky surface stains (regularly sipping on red wine, coffee, and tea doesn’t help, either).
With so many teeth whitening products on the market, from over-the-counter whitening kits to in-office professional treatments, it can be overwhelming to know which ones are right for you. Here, dentists weigh in on everything you need to know about the best teeth whitening products—plus, smart at-home strategies to help keep your pearly whites, well, white.
Ingredients that whiten teeth
Before you start adding teeth whitening products to your shopping cart, it’s important to know which ingredients actually help you achieve a brighter smile. According to the American Dental Association, there are two main types of whiteners on the market: bleaching products (which contain peroxide) to lift both deep and surface stains, and non-bleaching products to lighten surface stains only.
Bleaching products usually contain either carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide, but carbamide peroxide (also known as urea peroxide) is the most common, says Dr. Wright. “When water contacts this white crystal, the release of hydrogen peroxide lightens the teeth,” she explains.
Should you whiten your teeth?
Although most people will see some improvement in the appearance of their teeth when using a whitening product, others should proceed with caution. “Generally, bleaching is successful in at least 90% of patients,” says Dr. Wright. “But it may not be an option for everyone.”
If your teeth are darkened from age or food (particularly coffee and tea) and have discoloration that appears yellow, brown, or orange, you’re likely a good candidate for teeth bleaching, Dr. Wright says. On the other hand, discoloration that appears gray is typically caused by smoking, use of the antibiotic tetracycline, or fluorosis, which results from consuming too much fluoride while teeth are forming. While bleaching may help lighten these stains, the results will be less dramatic.
Before using any whitening product—even over-the-counter ones—it’s a good idea to ask your dentist if they’re safe for you to use. For example, anyone with gum disease or worn tooth enamel should avoid bleaching products altogether, since they could irritate already-sensitive teeth. People with loose or broken fillings are also at risk: “The bleach can seep deep into the tooth and adversely affect the nerve,” says Dr. Wright.
How often should you whiten your teeth?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how often a person can whiten their teeth. It largely depends on the type of whitening product you choose (more on that later). At-home products such as whitening kits can usually be used daily until you achieve your desired shade, says Dr. Wright. After that, once- or twice-monthly use will help you maintain your results.
However, when thinking about frequency, it’s important to consider the active ingredient of the product you’re using and how strong it is. For example, professional treatments typically contain higher percentages of whitening agents. “The higher the percentage of the active ingredient, the faster it will work, but the potential for more tooth and gum tissue sensitivity also increases,” says Edward Wilson, DDS, a dentist in the New York City area.
When you choose to whiten your teeth can make a difference too. According to Dr. Wright, the best time to whiten is just after you’ve visited your dentist for a cleaning.
“Surface stains have been removed by your hygienist, so the bleach products are working directly on the tooth and not on built-up stains,” she explains.
Over-the-counter whitening kits: What to know
Over-the-counter home kits are one of the most popular ways to whiten your teeth, and for good reason: They’re available everywhere, relatively easy to use, and can give you visible results without having to shell out for an in-office treatment.
“These kits are great,” says Lauren Levi, clinical instructor of dentistry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “They adapt to your teeth, aiding in efficiency.”
Most of these kits contain peroxide strips that can be worn daily for about a month. You can expect to brighten your smile by about one shade, and the results usually last six to 12 months. Whitening strip kits can cost anywhere between $20 and $50.
Home whitening kit to try: Crest 3D White No Slip Whitestrips, Professional Effects
To buy: $64; walgreens.com
Crest’s easy-on, easy-off whitening strips are a go-to. This kit includes 30 strips that will give you brighter teeth within one month. One thing to note: If your teeth are somewhat crooked, you may see some white splotches after removing the strips, since they may fit closely on one side and not the other.
Home whitening kit to try: Rembrandt Deeply White 2-Hour Whitening Kit
To buy: $23; amazon.com
This Rembrandt kit contains COMFYTRAY trays that you fill with whitening gel and let sit on your teeth for 20 minutes. There’s enough gel for four uses, so you can have brighter pearly whites after just two hours of wear.
Home whitening kit to try: Crest Whitestrips With Light
To buy: $61; amazon.com
For superfast at-home whitening, you can’t beat this new product from Crest (which was a winner in Health’s 2017 beauty awards). The kit includes a handheld light to help target deep-set stains while the whitening strips work their magic. You’ll see an improvement in one hour of use, and the results last six months.
Over-the-counter whitening toothpastes: What to know
In terms of ease of use, it’s hard to beat whitening toothpaste; you’re already brushing your teeth, so you might as well whiten them at the same time, right?
Whitening toothpastes contain mild abrasives that help remove superficial stains. “Most leading toothpaste companies use the finest silica particles that will mechanically remove stains but not excessively remove enamel, which can never grow back,” says Dr. Wright.
These products are best for lifting newer, fresher discoloration, but you shouldn’t expect them to make your teeth multiple shades lighter—one shade is more typical. This option is also one of the most affordable, as whitening toothpastes usually ring in at about $4 to $10 for a tube.
When shopping for whitening toothpaste, look for one that has a seal of approval from the American Dental Association (ADA) on its packaging. Also important: Make sure it still contains fluoride so you continue to protect teeth from cavities—especially if you’re using it as an everyday substitution for regular toothpaste.
Whitening toothpaste to try: Colgate Total Advanced Fresh + Whitening Gel Toothpaste
To buy: $4; walgreens.com
One tried-and-true choice is this ADA-approved advanced whitening toothpaste from Colgate, a brand Dr. Wright recommends. Used as directed, it helps fight cavities, plaque, bad breath, and gingivitis in addition to gently polishing away surface stains.
Whitening toothpaste to try: Crest Pro-Health Extra Whitening Power Toothpaste
To buy: $3; target.com
Another great choice: this classic whitening toothpaste from Crest. It checks all the boxes (fluoride, whitening agents, ADA-approved) and also helps protect against tooth sensitivity.
Whitening toothpaste to try: Tom’s of Maine Simply White Clean Mint Toothpaste
To buy: $5; target.com
If you prefer natural toothpaste, reach for this ADA-approved tube from Tom’s of Maine to help remove superficial stains. “Some natural toothpastes do not contain fluoride, however this one actually does,” says Dr. Levi.