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As much as we all crave a bright smile, this doesn’t stop most people from indulging in the most common tooth-staining culprits out there, like coffee, red wine, tomato sauce, curries, and more. Those ones are all worth the risk to your pearly whites, especially since the best at-home teeth whitening products have become more and more effective and safe these past years.
There are also many posers out there in the teeth-whitening game—those products that might severely compromise your enamel, or which fail to provide effective, even-toned results. On top of all that, none of the best products can perform optimally without regular professional cleanings and whitenings at your dentist’s office, as well as a thorough oral care regimen at home.
Read on for DIY teeth-whitening tips from Brooklyn-based celebrity cosmetic dentist Dr. Daniel Rubinshtein, AKA Dr. Daniel, as well as his advice on a big-picture whitening regimen. For starters, Dr. Daniel says not to overdo things, because totally white teeth might look a little unnatural: “The natural color of our teeth is not white,” he says. “They are typically a shade of either yellow or gray. Tooth color varies from person to person.” And because of this, at-home results can vary, too.
What to Look for in a Tooth-Whitening Product
Below is Dr. Daniel’s advice on the most common types of at-home whitening products, and what to look for in each. Also, note that there are two active stain-removal agents that are common in at-home products: hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, which are used across strips, gels, pens, and serums. (Typically, carbamide peroxide solutions are considered better for sensitive individuals, but it often just depends on the strength of the concentration and whether or not it was properly administered.)
Whitening strips: Look for strips that “hug” each tooth, he says, as they will leave no spot untouched. Anything that isn’t contouring itself to the entire smile will result in splotchy results.
Whitening gel: Dr. Daniel adds that the potency of these gels is best magnified by the use of an LED light, so make sure your first purchase includes an LED device.
Whitening pens and serums: Think of these as one and the same as gels; the terminology often differs based on the means of delivery. Some overnight whitening pens and serums rely on extremely light concentrations of stain-removing chemicals to work gently over a longer period of time (like, when you’re asleep).
Whitening trays: Dr. Daniel isn’t quick to endorse DIY whitening trays unless they have been fitted by your dentist. “A custom-fit tray will hold the whitening gel against your teeth,” he says. Many clinics can also provide the best gel for this, which is often worn for longer periods of time than the standard-fare OTC ones. “For optimal results, use these a few days before a big event,” he says.
Whitening toothpastes: Here’s where marketing takes a huge swing. Many toothpastes that market themselves as “whitening” are just good at being run-of-the-mill toothpastes, since maintaining a good oral care regimen is a key part of having a bright smile. Dr. Daniel adds that other whitening toothpastes come with a bigger risk, though: “Many claim to whiten teeth, but they do so at an expense. They vary from slightly abrasive to very abrasive. They may appear to make your teeth whiter by removing stains, but some are abrasive enough to remove enamel, which makes these toothpastes a very poor long-term solution.” So, as long as your toothpaste has fluoride or hydroxyapatite, it’s going to do its job to fortify your enamel and protect teeth from stains. That’s the most pressure you should put on a toothpaste; leave the active whitening to the gels and such. As a side note, though, Dr. Daniel says it’s good to have a sensitive toothpaste read for the days following any whitening session, to minimize those quick and annoying “zings” you get (due to the enamel being removed, leaving the nerve exposed to the elements; a little Advil goes a long way to calm those, too).
Professional vs. at-Home Teeth Whitening
Assuming you see your dentist every 3-6 months (which is also the frequency Dr. Daniel recommends), then it’s easy to add a professional whitening session every 6-12 months. This is important even if you plan to do at-home whitening, says Dr. Daniel. “In-office treatments work best and have the strongest concentration of whitening agents,” he says. “Over-the-counter options are weaker, less effective, and less permanent versions.” This is why many dentists see the at-home options as “touch ups” as opposed to the real thing.
First, do your research. Dr. Daniel urges patients to stay away from any “non-dental” teeth whitening centers. Dentists follow very specific, safe, and regulated parameters and they can make the most accurate dental impressions for whitening trays. “Plus, the whitening gel used in-office uses a higher concentration of bleach, which can cause more sensitivity and also require more care to make sure it doesn’t get on your gums, lips, or any part of your mouth,” he explains. (The gum tissue is usually covered with a thin sheet of rubber or a protective gel.)
These clinical whitenings will deliver the most uniform, effective, and long-lasting results. It’s also great to combine them with a regular dental visit since the doctor’s team can get rid of plaque or tartar buildup, and first check for cavities and any gum issues before administering the cosmetic treatments. And despite the strength of the in-office treatments, Dr. Daniel notes that it barely compromises one’s regular dietary and social habits: “You just need to avoid anything that could be staining (red wine, smoking, coffee, etc.) for 24 hours,” he says.
The Best At-Home Teeth Whiteners
Best Kit: Apa Beauty Apa White Duo
This pack of 10 strips and a whitening pen delivers a dynamic, professional-caliber result in under a week, from world-class dentist Dr. Michael Apa. They’re terrific for sensitive teeth since they both use carbamide peroxide instead of hydrogen peroxide. Use the strips for 90 minutes a day, five days in a row for best results.
Best Overnight Pen: Colgate Optic White Overnight Teeth Whitening Pen
Good for up to 35 uses, this pen brightens your smile during the darkest hours of the day. It uses a gentle three percent hydrogen peroxide formula to whiten teeth without the use of trays or strips, and promises to remove 15 years of stains in as little as seven nights of use.
Best Gel Pen: Smile Direct Club Ultra-Gentle Sensitivity-Free Teeth Whitening Kit with LED Light
This kit comes with a hydrogen peroxide-powered pen, an LED brightening device, as well as a post-whitening sensitivity gel that helps build up enamel. Use it daily for a week for a gradually brighter smile (SmileDirectClub promises 7 shades in 1 week), and a process that minimizes pain along the way.
Best Strips: Crest 3D Whitestrips Professional Effects
It’s impossible to make this list and not include Crest as the top whitening strip. They hug your teeth, and they work fast. Nearly 60,000 five-star reviews on Amazon echo our opinion, confirming they’re an effective choice.They also use hydrogen peroxide, so they’re a little harsher on sensitive teeth, but most people will have no issues.
Best for Sensitive Teeth: Moon Midnight Care Dissolving Whitening Strips
As soon as they touch your teeth, these strips hug every contour, and steadily dissolve as you doze off for the evening. They’re an easy and painless way to maximize brightness over the course of a couple of weeks, and their peppermint flavor leaves a lovely tingle, not to mention promotes fresh breath by morning.