White teeth can be a major boost to your appearance, and with advances in dentistry, there has never been a better time to get a teeth whitening procedure: it’s almost painless, it’s now relatively affordable, and will only take a few hours of your time.
Here, we will discuss all the ins and outs of the teeth whitening procedure, whether there will be risks involved, and your available options.
Let us begin.
Why You Need a Teeth Whitening Procedure
Teeth whitening is a cosmetic dental procedure to restore the white natural color of the tooth.
The outer layer of a tooth— the enamel—, is semi transparent and so will display the white color of the layer underneath it—the dentin—. The stain on the enamel, which is made by the accumulation of pellicle coating, will affect this transparency, and the ability of the enamel to reflect light. This is the main reason why stained teeth appear yellow, which can be caused by:
- Natural aging, where the enamel gets thinner and the dentin becomes darker
- Smoking or tobacco consumption
- Dark-colored beverages like coffee, tea, red wine, and cola
- Not brushing and flossing regularly, as well as other oral hygiene practices
How Teeth Whitening Is Performed
The teeth whitening procedure is usually performed with two different methods: vital and non-vital. Vital whitening procedure is performed on healthy teeth with their nerves intact, while non-vital whitening is performed on a tooth without any live nerve, commonly a tooth with prior root-canal treatment.
Vital whitening procedure
Although there can be various approaches, the most common method here is to use hydrogen peroxide in gel form.
Hydrogen peroxide is an unstable chemical substance that can break down the colour molecules staining the teeth, turning them into smaller, non-visible molecules. After this process, the teeth will appear whiter.
Vital whitening procedure usually takes about 30 to 90 minutes, and might be divided into up to 3 appointments. This will depend on the severity of your stains, how white you want the results, and the chosen methods.
If you want, some dentists might also offer in-home teeth whitening procedure. Here, the dentist will manufacture custom mouthpieces according to the impressions of your upper and lower teeth. It’s important to have these mouthpieces perfectly fitted, as they will be filled with the whitening agent.
At home, you will fill each mouthpiece with the whitening gel (provided by your dentist), and you will wear these mouthpieces for several hours every day. Normally, you will need to do this for one week or two to get the desirable results. In special cases, this process can last for a full month.
To note, there are also over the counter whitening agents available. They can be effective, but usually it will take longer before you get the results you want. Consult your dentist if you want to use these products to make sure they are safe and effective.
A relatively new procedure to assist the vital whitening procedure is to use a light (laser, LED light, or others) to accelerate the bleaching process. Light activation can accelerate the performance of the bleaching gel, and so the process can be significantly faster. With laser bleaching, we can wrap up the whitening process in just one visit.
Another benefit is that due to the light precision, laser bleaching can target individual tooth. However, laser bleaching can be significantly more expensive and can cost above $500 per session.
Non-vital whitening procedure
For a “dead” tooth after a root-canal treatment, the vital whitening procedure is usually not effective. This is because the colored stain comes from within the tooth, so we will need a different method to whiten the tooth from the inside out.
Usually, the process here involves placing the whitening agent inside the tooth, and put a temporary filling to cover it. (Note, the process might be different if the tooth already has a dental crown or a dental implant implemented). This process can last several days, and might be repeated until you get the desired whiteness.
Is Tooth Whitening Safe?
In the past, the chemical bleach whitening gel used to have a higher concentration, and so might cause inflammation and allergic reaction for those with sensitive gums.
Nowadays, however, the bleaching gel is well-buffered and various researches have been conducted to proof that bleaching and other teeth whitening procedures are totally safe and effective. However, make sure your dentist is using clinically proven products and is performing the right procedures.
Sensitivity issues like minor numbness might occur after the whitening procedure, especially when you eat overly cold or hot food/drink. However, this usually disappears after 48 hours, and if not, you might want to contact your dentist. Mild gum irritation or inflammation is also normal for up to a week after the procedure.
To accelerate the recovery process and remedy the sensitivity issues, here are some things you can do:
- Wear the mouthpiece for a shorter period if you are on an in-home whitening procedure
- Use toothpastes designed for sensitive teeth to help with the pain/irritation. Look for toothpastes with potassium nitrate for this purpose.
- Ask your dentist for fluoride supplement or other fluoride products. This will help in remineralizing your teeth to soothe the pain. There are fluoride products designed to use with your whitening mouthpiece
- If necessary, take a break and stop the in-home whitening process for a day or two. The pain and irritation will usually disappear within 24 hours.
Also, there are cases where teeth whitening is often discouraged. Since it’s a purely cosmetic procedure, you can move it to a later date if:
- You are currently pregnant or breast-feeding. The effect of bleach substances to babies are still unknown, so it’s better to postpone the procedure
- If you have teeth cavities, worn enamel, gum diseases, or very sensitive gums and teeth
- When you have dental crown with natural teeth color or similar procedures implemented on your front teeth, which can’t be bleached. You might need a laser bleaching procedure to whiten the other teeth.
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