If you've toyed with the idea of whitening your teeth but haven't actually done the deed, consider this: "Since teeth naturally yellow as we age, whitening them will automatically make you look younger," says Kim Harms, D.D.S., a practicing dentist and a spokesperson for the American Dental Association. What's more, a 2008 Columbia University study found that women with healthier-looking teeth earn more than those with less sparkling grins. Do you need any more reasons to whiten up?
How whiteners work
All bleaching methods use peroxide — whether in gel, strip, or liquid form — to dissolve surface stains, explains Debra Glassman, D.D.S., a cosmetic dentist in New York City. Teeth surfaces are made up of thousands of tiny dentinal tubules — hollow structures stacked horizontally, like thin straws. They're extremely porous and absorb pigments from food and drink. (Anything that can stain a white T-shirt can discolor your teeth, Glassman says.) Peroxide bubbles into the tubules and lightens those pigments.
Before you bleach
A first-timer should always consult her dentist before trying any tooth whitener, even an over-the-counter product, because not all teeth react to whitening the same way. Some types of dental work (like caps, crowns, and veneers) don't take to lightening because peroxide can't penetrate them. Stains caused by antibiotics, like tetracycline, are also tricky, because they can occur in the layers inside the tooth, which brighteners can't reach. Your dentist will be able to advise you about the best method for you.
If you go to a pro
The whitening agents dentists use are up to three times more powerful than at-home versions, so you'll see results faster than if you go solo. If you're looking for a dramatic, fast solution, consider power whitening: First, a protective rubber guard or barrier gel is placed over your gums to help avoid possible sensitivity to peroxide. Then the teeth are coated with a bleaching agent and a light is aimed at them to activate the ingredients. The procedure takes about an hour, and costs $500 to $700.
A cheaper (but slower) option: Your dentist can custom-fit you with plastic dental trays, kind of like retainers, which you fill with a peroxide gel and wear at home. You could see brighter teeth within a few days, though some people need up to four weeks to see results. Oh yeah, and it'll cost you $250 to $400.
If you'd rather pass on the peroxide, check out these other options to whiten your smile:
Bring on the baking soda
The refrigerator deodorizer also removes discoloration on your teeth. The abrasive particles polish the surface while a chemical reaction between baking soda and water lightens stains, says Jonathan B. Levine, a cosmetic dentist in New York City. (Warning: You can damage your enamel with the scrubbing, so don't do it more than once a week.) Just dip your toothbrush in the soda, or simply switch to a toothpaste that contains baking soda, such as Arm & Hammer Complete Care Toothpaste ($4 for 6 oz, drugstore.com).
Feel the crunch
"Foods that are high in cellulose — a strong starchlike compound found in celery, carrots, and apples — act as natural abrasives, cleansing teeth and removing surface stains naturally," says Jeff Golub-Evans, D.D.S., a cosmetic dentist in New York City. And greens such as spinach, broccoli, and lettuce contain mineral compounds that form a film over the teeth, so pigments from other foods can't stain.
Be a little shady
Want to make your teeth look fashionably white — without the work? "Stick with blue-based red and pink lipsticks or clothes in dark colors," says Pia Lieb, D.D.S., a cosmetic dentist in New York City. Warm colors (yellow, orange, brown, warm shades of red) worn close to your mouth will only bring out the yellow in your teeth.
The blue undertones in these glosses give you a mega-white grin:
- Enbrightenmint BriteSmile whitener and lip gloss in Pearly Pink, $26, sephora.com
- JK Jemma Kidd Maxi Kiss Plumping Lip Gloss in Angelina, $17, target.com
- Sally Hansen Smile Brightening Lip Treatment in Brilliant, $7, walgreens.com