By Hilary Sheinbaum
When Crest White Strips debuted 20 years ago, I distinctly remember staring at the T.V. screen mezmorized. I immediately told my mom I needed to go to the drugstore and buy this fancy new product ASAP. I wasn’t even old enough to drive (hence my parental request for a chauffeur), but I was convinced that having whiter teeth was the epitome of beauty. (Nevermind that I hadn’t started wearing makeup yet or developed an inkling of a skincare regimen, but I digress.)
Two decades later — including 1.5 years of braces, whitening toothpastes and mouthwashes, in-office whitening, at-home lights, Dentist cleanings, etc. — I’m still obsessed with the appearance of my teeth and their color. But, along my journey to achieve a great smile, I’ve also learned from many professionals that — much like skincare — it’s best not to over do it.
If you’re thinking about a brighter, whiter, smile, here’s what to know about how often to whiten your teeth… and if they can, in fact, be too white.
The most common ways people whiten their teeth fall under two categories: professional in-office or at-home, says Dr. Victoria Veytsman, a cosmetic dentist in New York City and Beverly Hills, Calif. “In-office, we have several options but in my office we use primary Zoom whitening,” she says. “It’s an hour-long procedure that uses a blue plasma light to activate a peroxide gel that’s placed on the teeth after we block out the gum tissue to protect it.”
Dr. Veysyman says the at-home treatments include whitening toothpastes, whitening strips and take home trays, which are all great for maintenance. “You will get the most noticeable result from the in office treatments because we are able to use a higher concentration of gel in a controlled environment,” she says. “A combination of both in office and at home will get you the best result.”
I’m not a scientist, but I always appreciate knowing what is being applied to my teeth and what it does. “The active ingredient in whitening products is a form of peroxide,” says Veytsman. “Peroxide literally oxidizes stains off of teeth.The in office treatments we use have 25% hydrogen peroxide gel.”
At home whitening treatments contain a lower concentration of different forms of peroxide, she says — with a note about the stuff you’re putting on your toothbrush bristles. “It’s important to note that most ‘whitening’ toothpastes don’t contain peroxide. They contain microabrasive elements that remove stains, but don’t actually oxidize stains off.”
Like most medical and aesthetic recommendations, teeth whitening frequency is personal and also dependent on the individual’s biology and habits. “How often you need to whiten depends on your lifestyle,” says Dr. Chris Salierno, chief dental officer at Tend in New York City. “If you drink lots of coffee and red wine, you’ll probably feel the need to do some maintenance whitening once or twice a month. Regardless of what method you use, you should always check in with your dentist prior.”
The moment of truth is upon us — and there is good news. “Dentists use color guides to track the spectrums of white, yellow, brown, and gray,” says Dr. Salierno. “Ever since whitening became popular, we’ve had to add ultra white colors to the scale, which we call bleaching shades.” He says the idea of teeth being ‘too white’ depends on factors like age and skin color. “Some bleaching shades look fine for one person and ridiculously fake on another,” he says. (So… consult with your dentist.)
…And now for the not-so-great news. “Going overboard with anything is not a good idea. It can lead to sensitivity which is usually short term,” says Dr. Veytsman. (Ouch.) “We recommend everything in moderation and as needed. We haven’t seen nerve damage unless there is an exposed cavity or area close to the nerve.”
Thankfully, yes (most of the time). “Dentists can usually treat lingering sensitivity with materials like fluoride to calm the teeth down,” says Dr. Salierno. “The damage is almost always reversible and tends to go away on its own within a couple of days.”
True to any procedure or treatment: people should have realistic expectations about results, says Dr. Veytsman. “Everyone will whiten to varying degrees depending on their natural shade of white. Many of the celeb photos you see in the media or instagram are either photoshop or veneers,” she says. “The key is becoming the best series for yourself.”