How Tooth Whitening Works?
Have you ever wanted a white, attention-grabbing, perfect "Hollywood" smile? You're not alone. An estimated ten million Americans will spend a whopping 1.7 billion dollars on tooth whitening products and services this year. Tooth whitening is the most common cosmetic service provided by dentists, and there are also a growing number of over-the-counter tooth whitening products to choose from.
In this article, I'll explain how years of coffee, wine, soda and other unsightly stains can be removed quickly, safely, and with minimal discomfort.
The Basic Idea
Before we get into the details of tooth-whitening, let's take a minute to meet the enemy. What are tooth stains anyway?
Each of your teeth is made up of an inner dentin layer and a hard outer enamel layer, which protects the teeth. When you put stuff in your mouth -- food, cigarette smoke, coffee, etc. -- another layer gradually forms on top of the enamel layer. Basically, the foreign material accumulates to form a pellicle film over the enamel layer.
A dentist can clean away this film, through scraping and chemical treatments. Even brushing your teeth can knock out some of it -- brushing with the abrasive toothpaste cleans the tooth in the same sort of way scrubbing with an abrasive pad cleans a dish. "Whitening toothpastes" are designed to work even harder on this layer.
The problem is, as this pellicle layer sits on your teeth for years and years, the foreign material gets into the enamel. The enamel layer is made up of hydroxyapatite crystals, which form microscopic hexagonal "rods." Simply put, enamel is porous, which means staining agents can work their way down into the tooth, where you can't simply scour them away. The deeper stains are basically harmless, but many people find them unattractive.
This is where true tooth whiteners come in. Basically, the whiteners use bleaching chemicals to get down into the tooth enamel and set off a chemical reaction (specifically, an oxidation reaction) that breaks apart the staining compounds.
Most tooth whiteners use one of two chemical agents: carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide (the same stuff that will bleach your hair). When used in the mouth, carbamide peroxide breaks down into hydrogen peroxide and urea, with hydrogen peroxide being the active whitening ingredient.
Is Tooth Whitening Safe?
Most studies confirm that tooth whitening is safe and effective. Whitening gels that contain 10 percent carbamide peroxide (equivalent to 3.6 percent hydrogen peroxide) have not been shown to cause any damage to the enamel of the tooth. Higher concentrations of carbamide and hydrogen peroxide available from the dentist may weaken the enamel, but most of these formulas also contain fluoride offsetting this potential side-effect. People who use higher concentrations of whitening agents can also receive prescription fluoride gels from their dentist to help further protect their teeth.
If tooth sensitivity or gum irritation occur, it is best to start using the whitening product less frequently -- say, every other day instead of every day -- and reduce the amount of time spent whitening. Prescription fluoride is also used to treat sensitivity sometimes associated with tooth whitening. Irritation of the gums can occur from either the in-office, at-home or over-the-counter tooth whitening systems. Gum irritation is usually mild and reversible, but can be treated with over-the-counter products such as Orajel.
Some dentists believe that they are losing patients and revenue because large companies are taking tooth whitening procedures away from them. It was the same argument the movie industry had against the VCR and Pay-Per-View. Guess what happened? People actually went out to the movies even more after these technological advances were introduced.
When Tiger Woods was winning tournament after tournament in 2000, some questioned whether it was good for golf to have such a dominant player. Again, we see that Tiger's presence has greatly increased interest in golf, bringing in droves of new fans.
Likewise, companies that market their over-the-counter tooth whitening products have actually helped dentists and consumers because they generate interest and enthusiasm about tooth whitening and cosmetic dentistry. In fact, the insert provided in Crest Whitestrips actually suggests talking to your dentist or dental hygienist about other cosmetic dental options and briefly describes those procedures.
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