What is a tooth whitening agent, and what is it made of?

Whitening agents that are used by dental professionals have something called “peroxide” in it. Peroxide is the generic term for a substance that destroys organic matter. Organic matter is basically everything that is alive (which includes gums, lips/cheeks and food/pigments that are stuck to our teeth.) In most cases, the dental professional will guard gums and facial tissues from the whitening agent, so that the peroxide only gets in contact with the front surface of the teeth, where only the pigments (scientific word: chromagens) exist. The peroxide comes into contact with these chromagens, which are then eliminated by breaking down the bonds that hold them together. That’s it. There is no other special requirement and no other aspect to tooth whitening. The only difference between in-office and at-home whitening? The strength of the whitening agent. SPOILER ALERT: in-office whitening is stronger.

Note: No mention of a bright blue light! This is because the light does nothing and never has. This is a gimmick and if your dentist says it’s necessary, just know that there is no evidence in scientific literature stating that.

Can whitening agents affect your gums?

If your gums get irritated from whitening (they can turn white), applying vitamin E oil to the area is usually enough to make it go away. Only one or two applications should resolve the issue, but continue applying it routinely until the gums go back to normal color.

How does whitening agent affect enamel?

While the surface layer of enamel that touches the whitening agent (in-office) changes slightly after exposure, there is no evidence that this change results in loss of enamel. It is a myth that in-office whitening causes you to lose enamel. However, it has been shown in some studies that at-home whitening causes significantly more enamel erosion.

Does whitening agent cause tooth sensitivity?

Teeth that have never had fillings or restorations placed are not at risk for long-term tooth sensitivity from teeth whitening. Teeth can be sensitive for a short period of time after whitening, so the less frequently you use a whitening agent, the less likely you are to develop tooth sensitivity. However, stronger whitening agents are more likely to cause tooth sensitivity than weaker ones. So, tooth sensitivity is not common and occurs only for a short period of time. If any whitening material touches dentin (the yellow part of the tooth under the enamel), this can cause pulpitis which is a very real tooth pain that may require root canal treatment.

How does teeth whitening affect fillings/restorations?

Teeth that have had fillings placed on them are much more likely to have tooth sensitivity. The pain experienced from sensitivity is also more intense on teeth that have fillings. It is best to avoid teeth and/or areas of teeth that have had fillings placed.

Any action has a reaction and any medical procedure brings some risk with it. Dental tooth whitening has been a source of fear for many patients who are worried about irreversible damage caused to teeth. In excess, anything will cause damage. So, when it comes to teeth whitening, just do it once or twice a year at most. In moderation, all symptoms/side-effects will be minimal. For those worried about tooth sensitivity, take some Tylenol (better than Advil in this case) before your dental appointment to avoid immediate tooth sensitivity. If you are not sure about how much you can handle, opt for less whitening to be safe. And as a rule, don’t let the dental professional apply whitening to a tooth or area of a tooth that has fillings. If you follow these guidelines, you have nothing to fear from dental tooth whitening!