White SmileNo one likes having yellow or brown teeth (unless you're eating Oreos, because then it's delightful) but with so many teeth whitening methods out there, how do you know what to try? Is it worth paying extra money for whitening trays or professional whitening from a dentist, or can you get by with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda?
While peroxide and baking soda may be good options for upkeep or quick fixes, for serious stains, some kind of specially formulated method will be far more effective far more quickly. Here are the facts you should know if you want to get serious about whitening your teeth.

Why Teeth Become Discolored

There are several factors that cause teeth to become stained. Extrinsic stains
are caused by the foods and other things the teeth come in contact with -- dark colored beverages like coffee, chewing tobacco and cigarette smoke, as well as ordinary wear and tear, cause the enamel of the teeth to become stained. However, most people wear down their enamel with normal living, and eventually it becomes more transparent. Since the dentin inside the tooth is yellowish, it begins to show through and the teeth look less white. Intrinsic stains are the result of age, exposure to chemicals, excessive fluoride exposure, or trauma. (And no, black, dead teeth will not respond to whitening products.)

Why That Matters

Exterior stains can usually be treated with teeth bleaching products - hydrogen peroxide, white strips, etc. Typically, products like white strips and whitening trays provide a more concentrated effort than using diluted hydrogen peroxide or baking soda, so for tougher stains, something formulated to get rid of stains is probably going to give you better results.

There are other factors that influence how effective your whitening routine will be.
  • Age. Teeth naturally darken with age. Teeth whitening products are nearly always effective for teenagers, whose teeth are still white under some minor cosmetic stains, whitening products work quickly. Once users get into their twenties or thirties, the teeth have yellowed a little and may need more bleaching to get them to be whiter than they actually are. People in their fifties may have a much harder time removing stains (although it isn't impossible) and may wish to seek the help of a dentist to really remove the hard-set stains.
  • Eating Habits. People who habitually drink red wine, coffee or cola, who eat carrots, oranges, or other dark-colored foods and drinks can expect to have a more difficult time whitening their teeth. Acidic foods wear enamel away more quickly and can speed up the transparency of the enamel.
  • Smoking. Nicotine sinks into the teeth and actually becomes an intrinsic stain. Anyone who smokes for very long can expect deep, hard-to-remove stains.
  • Natural Color. Since everyone starts out with a different color, it's hard to say how teeth will respond to whitening or bleaching products, but people who start out with teeth closer to the yellow-brown end of the scale than the green-gray end will typically have better results.

What Are Your Options?

Most bleaching methods use some form of peroxide, but the prices are not all created equal, nor is the effectiveness. Let's examine the three most-used options.
Professional Whitening
Dental Treatments

The biggest benefit of having in office whitening is that the color should change significantly in a short period of time. Dentists use a high concentrate of peroxide while using some kind of gum protection. Sometimes they couple their treatment with a take home whitening product for touching up the color.
The good news about in-office treatments is that within one or two whitening sessions (an hour or two of actual whitening) most people see very dramatic results. Dentists can even deal with some intrinsic stains. The bad news is that it's expensive - typically $500-650. If the insurance won't cover it, that's pretty steep.

Professional Whitening Kits

Many dentists prefer to send home whitening kits rather than doing a quick whitening job because they believe the gradual whitening of lower-concentrations of peroxide gives users better long-term results. They are typically easy to use, but because of their lower concentration, they need to be on the teeth longer (sometimes overnight). These usually come in the form of whitening trays with gel in them and are fairly effective. Some dentists even believe that long use of good whitening trays can take care of some intrinsic trays.
Professional whitening kits may be slower than in-office treatments, but they are much less expensive - typically $100-400 dollars.

White StripsOver-the-Counter Whitening Kits

OTC Whitening products like Crest White Strips or Aquafresh Whitening Trays are by far the most convenient and least expensive option available. They are typically an even lower concentration of peroxide than the professional kits, which means it takes more time wearing them. White strips often only whiten a few front teeth, partially because the one-size-fits-all method can't accommodate everyone's teeth. Over-the-counter kits come with trays, strips, or paint on gel. For normal staining, and especially for younger people, over-the counter may work perfectly, but it probably won't deal with serious, ingrained stains. The perk is the price - usually $20-100 will buy you a whiter smile.

Most of these methods do require some upkeep - just because you whiten your teeth once doesn't mean that the tiny cracks in your teeth stop gathering foods that create lovely stains. However, a good whitening job can usually keep you going for a long time with a little maintenance every few months.