As you get older, your teeth naturally become darker. If you drink tea, coffee, red wine or consume other foods and drinks with strong colourings, your teeth may become discoloured earlier in your life. Another major cause of discolouration is smoking, which can make your teeth appear yellow. Tooth decay, fillings and tartar build-up (a hardened form of plaque, which is formed by a film of bacteria on the surface of your teeth) can also contribute to discolouration.
Tooth whitening products can help to lighten your teeth. They usually contain either a chemical called hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. When these chemicals break down, oxygen gets into the hard outer surface (enamel) of your teeth, which whitens them. The whitening effects can last from a few months up to three years. This varies from person to person.
There are several different ways you can whiten your teeth. For example, you can buy bleaching kits to use at home, or your dentist can whiten your teeth for you. Bleaching won’t work on false teeth, crowns, veneers or fillings (including tooth-coloured fillings). Instead, your dentist may be able to replace these with lighter ones. He or she can give you advice about the different bleaching methods and which will be the most effective for you.
If you have tooth decay or gum disease, this will need to be treated before you have any whitening treatments. There are some instances when your dentist may recommend that you don’t have your teeth whitened. For example, bleaching isn’t usually recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or for anyone under the age of 18 whose teeth are still developing.
What are the alternatives to tooth whitening?
Simple ways to improve the appearance of discoloured teeth include:
- brushing regularly with a fluoride toothpaste
- stopping smoking
- cutting down on food and drinks that can stain your teeth, such as tea, coffee and red wine
- visiting your dentist regularly – he or she can scale and polish your teeth to remove any tartar that has built up
Whitening toothpastes are slightly abrasive, which may help to remove surface staining, but don’t change the natural shade of your teeth. Experts are currently reviewing how effective whitening toothpastes are.
Professional tooth whitening
Professional bleaching is carried out by your dentist. It can be external or internal. If you have external bleaching, the gel is placed on the outer surfaces of your teeth. Internal bleaching involves the bleaching product being put inside your tooth. External bleaching is more common, as internal bleaching can only be used if you’ve had root canal treatment, making access to the inside of your tooth easier.
External bleaching is similar to over-the-counter tooth whitening kits. Your dentist will make rubber mouth trays that fit your teeth exactly, and the gel will be stronger and therefore more effective. He or she will give you tubes of bleaching gel and instructions on how to put the gel in the mouth trays. You will need to regularly wear the mouth trays for 30 minutes to one hour, over a period of two to four weeks.
Power or laser bleaching can also be done by your dentist. He or she will place a rubber seal around your teeth to protect your gums. Then the bleaching gel is put onto your teeth and a special, bright light is used to speed up the whitening process. This treatment usually takes about one hour.
Internal bleaching can only be done if you’ve had root canal treatment. This means that the blood vessels and nerves inside your tooth have been replaced with a rubber filling.
If you have internal bleaching, your dentist will drill a hole in your tooth and put the bleaching product into the hole. He or she will then use the hole that was previously made for your root treatment, although it may need to be made slightly larger. Your dentist will seal the hole with a temporary filling, leaving the bleach inside your tooth.
You will need to go back to your dentist about a week later to have the temporary filling and bleach taken out. He or she will fill the hole with a tooth-coloured filling.
What are the risks?
As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with tooth whitening. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your dentist to explain how these risks apply to you.
Side-effects are the unwanted, but mostly temporary effects you may get after the procedure.
Side-effects of tooth whitening include temporary sensitivity of your teeth to hot and cold, a sore throat, tender gums and white patches on your gums. These side-effects should disappear after a few days. Contact your dentist if the side-effects last for longer than this.
Please contact Dr Costa Saridakis for teeth whitening procedures in Milnerton or in the greater Cape Town area.