5 Things You Didn’t Know About: How teeth whiteners can mess up your mouth

by Jessica Ashley

My parents paid a lot for me to have pretty teeth. There were braces and many lost retainers and lots of cleanings to correct the teeth that genetics gave me. I have always been grateful that I have a smile that has been well-cared for.  I also thought that with brushing and flossing and regular trips to the dentist, I wouldn’t really ever have to worry about whitening my teeth, too.

Until I was at a party with a group of my girlfriends last year. As I stood in a circle with them, it struck me what white teeth they all had. I looked at each of my friends, one by one, noting how pearly white their pearly whites had become. If there was a videotape of that party, I am sure it would show the look of panic cross my face in that very first realization that maybe, just maybe, I could use a little whitening myself.

I went home and looked through recent pictures of myself, trying very hard to assess my smile. Did I need to whiten or not? Was it worth the expense? Could I handle adding one more thing to my nightly regimen in front of the bathroom mirror? Were whiter, brighter teeth worth all the trouble of strips, trays, gels or an expensive laser session at the dentist’s office?

Then a few months later, I got a whitening system in a swag bag at a conference. It was a fancy little pen that only required me to swipe a brush across my teeth. It was easy and I noticed a difference after a couple of applications. Even better, I didn’t have to stress about gagging on trays full of goop. I admit, I like my teeth a bit whiter and I think the difference is noticeable (at least to me). I don’t feel the need to make my teeth a Tom Cruise shade of HELLO! WHITE!, but I do want to keep up the color I now have.

Since I’ve converted, I’ve been fascinated by how normalized teeth bleaching has become. In my case, I felt like the whiter and brighter other people’s teeth got, the worse my “normal” teeth looked. I am not necessarily proud of the dental peer pressure but am glad I found a way to whiten without too much hassle or obsession.

I do think that we need to be very careful about how we whiten, what products we choose and how often we are attacking our teeth with chemicals, lasers or whatever it is that gets them to gleam. That’s why I was glad to read this article on the dangers of teeth whiteners. It says that many people suffer from side effects and even chronic pain as a result of bleaching their teeth. If we choose to whiten, the article points out, we need to first choose a method that works best for our lifestyle and sensitivities. Then, we need to be aware of what the risks are of using that method and how to address any symptoms.

Here are five more key points from the article you need to know if you are in pursuit of whiter teeth:

1.  Teeth whitening is big business. Americans poured nearly $2 billion into teeth whitening products in 2004. Of that, $280 million was spent on over-the-counter kits. It’s a business that has caught on relatively quickly. In 2001, 1 in 10 patients asked their dentist about whitening their teeth. By 2004, that number doubled.

2.  Many of us have trouble with the whitening we’re doing. One study reported that 50% of people experienced mild to moderate sensitivity after using over-the-counter whitening products. However, 1 in 25 experienced much more serious pain, described by one woman as significant enough to make her double over and worry she would pass out.

3.  Whitening is safe, but only if you use products as directed. Although more and more of us are bleaching, a third of us are concerned that even professional whitening will damage the enamel on our teeth. Research shows this shouldn’t be a worry and (not surprisingly) dentists respond that the real problems occur when people overuse whiteners or don’t follow directions.  Studies indicate that it is safe for most people to use a at-home kit (usually lasting two weeks) or get a professional whitening session at the dentist’s office once or twice per year.

4.  The side effects are not pretty. The color will regress, and dentists say this prompts many people to do more whitening than is recommended. Don’t be tempted, the article warns, to use an at-home product in between professional sessions. Dentists also warn that the chemicals in whitening kits aren’t intended for everyday use. Mild symptoms include gum irritation, uneven whiteness and a blueish tint to the enamel, and will often subside if bleaching is stopped. Whitening products can cause internal damage that is much more difficult to treat, however. This happens when the chemicals infiltrate an unfilled cavity or cracked tooth.

5.  Your desire for white teeth could become a disorder. True obsession with whitening teeth can be classified as a form of body dysmorphic disorder. As bleaching has become more mainstream, it has also become incorporated into the syndromes that people battle. One study of 200 people with body dysmorphic disorder showed that nearly one-third of them were compulsively whitening their teeth to the point of pain.