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Everything You Need to Know About Whitening Your Teeth

Can you handle the ~tooth~?

Whether you’re going the at-home route or getting it done professionally, teeth whitening is generally a safe procedure that’s so common, chances are you or someone you know have brightened up your chompers at some point. But it’s still important to prepare for whitening accordingly — as well as to be smart about maintaining your gleaming smile. So we talked with Alexandra Simpson, DDS, a practicing dentist in New York City, about everything you’ll need to keep in mind before (and after) baring your teeth to the bleaching gods.

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You May Be Tempted, But Don’t Overdo It

You don’t want to get too bleach-happy, says Simpson, “because you are constantly removing the enamel matrix, making teeth more porous — more sensitive and more brittle. Your saliva rebuilds the enamel matrix, so not bleaching constantly helps maintain your teeth’s health.” And that goes for all the options available to you. Speaking of: You’ve got over-the-counter products, like Crest 3D Whitestrips (our pick for best $$ teeth whitener), which can provide results within 10 to 14 days; take-home bleaching trays from a dental professional, which typically require a two-week commitment and can be used subsequently to touch up prior to an event; and in-office bleaching, usually an hour-and-a-half procedure. (Simpson herself usually does a touch-up once a year using take-home trays for just a couple of days — not the full course — after a cleaning.)

Your teeth are prooobably gonna hurt

Tooth sensitivity can be a major factor, regardless of whether you’re doing strips, using a whitening pen, or getting bleached by a professional. Peroxide, typically the main ingredient in whitening treatments, can temporarily heighten dental sensitivity — and if you haven’t whitened before, you may not know just how sensitive you’ll be. And remember that OTC whitening products contain a much lower concentration of hydrogen peroxide; the maximum allowed for them is 10%, while professional treatments can contain up to 40%. Simpson suggests using a sensitivity toothpaste, like Sensodyne or Colgate Sensitive, at least two weeks prior to beginning the bleaching process. If you’re going the in-office route, she recommends popping an Advil or Tylenol beforehand if you can tolerate either pain reliever, to help mitigate any potential sensitivities during the bleach party in your mouth. (Sorry.)

Be mindful of your dental issues

Tooth decay can increase sensitivity during the process, and should be taken care of prior to whitening; anyone with gum recession may find the process a bit uncomfortable as well. Simpson notes that intrinsic stains — that is, stains inside the tooth that may have been caused, for instance, by certain medications, trauma to the tooth, medical conditions, or aging — will not be whitened with OTC products and should be addressed by a professional.

Proper prep and post-care = the best results

Sensitivity aside, for the whitest teeth possible, Simpson advises “having a thorough cleaning to remove any extrinsic, or outside, stains so that the bleach can penetrate better” before you transform those pearly yellows. Post-bleaching, you’ll want to nix any dark-colored beverages like coffee, tea, or red wine for the next two days, while your enamel is more susceptible to soaking up stains. “Just like getting your car washed, you wouldn’t do so on a day it’s supposed to rain,” Simpson says — so the better you are at avoiding foods that stain, the longer your teeth will remain brighter. To prevent painful “zingers,” also proceed with caution when it comes to food and drinks at extreme temperatures within 24 to 48 hours of the process. 

You can continue using Sensodyne (or whatever gentle toothpaste you prefer) until sensitivities are no longer crampin’ your style — and then go forth and flash those brighter teeth with pride.

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Every product covered here is independently selected by opinionated humans. But so you know, buying stuff through our links may earn us a small share of the sale or other compensation.

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