Trends fluctuate, but luminous skin and dazzling teeth have always been a covetable pair. Perhaps it’s because they convey a seemingly effortless radiance; one that suggests attention to health and self-care.
As we all know, “good skin” requires downright dedication; it’s commitment to a serum, sticktoitiveness to SPF, and a (seemingly endless) search for the planet’s best retinol. Equally as arduous — though arguably lesser-discussed — is the road to a sparkling, healthy-looking smile. Achieving and maintaining pearly whites takes a bit of research, some elbow grease, and — depending on your lifestyle habits — a bit of professional intervention. Below, we asked three dentists to spill their secrets for sparkly white teeth.
“Instant gratification” does not exist in the tooth whitening lexicon — but a drastically brighter smile in under an hour is possible with some professional help. According to Dr. Victoria Veytsman, a dentist with offices in NYC and Beverly Hills, professional teeth whitening procedures are the gold standard in polishing those pearly whites.
In under an hour, treatments such as laser whitening can brighten teeth by up to five to six shades, Dr. Veytsman says. Unlike DIY versions (more on those later), professional formulas use a much stronger peroxide solution (pro-grade Zoom!TM Whitening, for instance, uses a 25 percent peroxide formula). These strong solutions oxidize stains and remove them from the enamel.
While the accelerated speed of professional tooth whitening is alluring, the treatment does entail potential drawbacks. Most notably, ultra-concentrated professional whitening solution can increase your risk for bouts of tooth sensitivity (imagine a sharp zap surging through the entire tooth). However, Dr. Veytsman notes that these painful zings do not happen in all cases; and, if they do, the discomfort usually subsides within a few days.
[Editor’s note: If discomfort lasts longer than a few days, talk to your dentist.]
Another consideration: You’ll probably have to cut out your favorite foods for a few days. Most dentists recommend following what is known as “the white food diet” for at least 24 to 48 hours following treatment, as newly-whitened teeth are more susceptible to staining. So, prepare to swap your merlot for chardonnay, coffee for water, and tomato sauce for, well, anything that’s not so vibrant. (Bananas and ice cream, anyone?). As a general rule of thumb, most pros recommend steering clear of any food that could stain a white shirt. (Learn more about professional teeth whitening.)
Lastly, professional teeth whitening is not permanent. However, if you take care with regular brushing and establish additional tooth-friendly habits (more on those later), your results can last for up to three years.
Overnight Whitening Trays
Overnight whitening trays are also administered by a dentist; however, unlike their speedy in-office counterparts, the whitening happens over many days. Here’s how it works: You schedule an appointment with your dentist, who will create a mold of your teeth out of malleable material (think of it like a night guard). This mold — i.e. the “tray” part of the whitening tray — will serve as a vehicle for professional-strength whitening gel, which your dentist will also provide. After you leave with your tray and gel, the onus is on you to carry out the whitening process.
Luckily, it’s simple: Simply fill your tray with the gel and wear the tray overnight (as you would with a mouthguard). Because they have been professionally fitted, the trays create a seal to keep the whitening gel on your teeth, prevent saliva from diluting the formula, and divert the product away from your gums, explains Dr. Matt Nejad, a dentist in Beverly Hills, CA.
Incidentally, overnight whitening trays are ideal for sensitive teeth. This is because the formula relies on a low concentration of the active ingredient, carbamide peroxide. Carbamide peroxide contains hydrogen peroxide at a ratio of 1:3. It’s still efficacious, but takes more time to release the active ingredient and reveal those radiant results. “The longer [overnight] wear time makes up for the lower concentration,” Dr. Nejad explains. “[This] provides [less] sensitivity, while achieving extremely effective and safe whitening.”
Dr. Bruce Lein, a dentist in Jupiter, FL, likes to send patients home with a whitening tray like Opalescence®, in conjunction with in-office whitening. This way, patients can prolong the results of their professional treatment. “For long-term results, [they do] a quarterly application in their take-home trays,” he explains. If a patient happens to have a diet rich in teeth-staining foods, like curry, he’ll recommend additional applications.
Whitening strips have staying power for one simple reason: They really do work. “Whitening strips are the best over-the-counter whitening method,” says Dr. Nejad. “They contain peroxide, which is effective, but it is shorter acting [than carbamide peroxide].” Plus, the strips typically spend a limited amount of time on the teeth, which minimizes the chances of sensitivity. (And longer wear is not better; Dr. Nejad warns against wearing these strips overnight, as that can conversely increase sensitivity.) Try the Crest 3D White® No Slip Whitestrips® ($45), which require 30 minutes of daily wear for two weeks to achieve the full brightening results.
Two of the biggest teeth-staining offenders are coffee and wine. If swearing them off isn’t an option — as in, you just don’t want to — consider investing in a whitening pen. These products are around the size of a lipgloss, and can be slicked on almost as easily. Simply click or twist the device (such as the tarte® Pearly GirlTM Vegan Teeth Whitening Pen, $22) to deposit product and swipe across teeth. “A whitening pen has a lower concentration of hydrogen peroxide [than other teeth whitening methods],” explains Dr. Veystman. Ergo, there’s little risk of sensitivity — even if you use it regularly. Another bonus: “Whitening pens are small, so you can carry them in your purse and apply with just a click,” adds Dr. Veystman. To ward off staining, apply the product right after you’ve finished your morning espresso or happy-hour Chianti.
Water and Gum
In addition to using a whitening pen after you sip, you can also make changes in how you drink. “Whenever possible, use a straw to minimize contact with the teeth,” Dr. Nejad suggests. “Also, swishing with water within a few minutes [of drinking dark beverages] helps prevent staining.” Same goes for chewing whitening gum after a meal, which can help keep stains from settling into the teeth, Dr. Veytsman explains. Still, these methods are primarily preventative. “The only thing that actually oxides stains off of teeth is peroxide,” Dr. Veytsman adds.
Whitening toothpaste can be effective, but it won’t actually whiten your teeth. Instead, it simply removes surface stains. “It won’t whiten your teeth from their existing shade aside from [superficial] stain removal,” Dr. Nejad notes. To glean the most benefit, Dr. Veystman suggests pairing whitening paste with an electric toothbrush. “Electric toothbrushes have been proven to remove more stains on average than a manual toothbrush,” she explains. Pairing the two is a good idea for maintenance, particularly if you want to maintain results from any tooth-whitening efforts. And, while charcoal and baking soda often come up in this category, resist the appeal of these so-called hacks. “I think some of those products are a bit abrasive,” Dr. Veytsman adds.
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