A bright, white smile can do wonders for your confidence and appearance. But over time, your teeth can become stained or discolored from food, drinks, smoking, and other habits. If you feel your smile has lost some of its luster, professional teeth whitening may help give you the look you want. But is it worth the time and money? Here’s an in-depth look at the pros and cons of professional teeth whitening services.
How Does Professional Whitening Work?
Professional whitening is done in a dentist’s office, using higher concentrations of bleaching agents than over-the-counter kits. First, a dental professional will examine your teeth to determine if you are a good candidate for whitening. They will then make a custom-fitted tray to hold the whitening gel against your teeth.
The main active ingredient in whitening gels is hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. As the bleaching agent sits on your teeth, the peroxide releases unstable oxygen molecules that penetrate the enamel and break up staining compounds inside the teeth. This process lightens the underlying color.
Several rounds of whitening are usually needed to achieve noticeable results. Each session takes 30 minutes to an hour. Dentists often recommend doing these sessions over 2-4 weeks.
Pros of Professional Whitening
There are several advantages to having your teeth whitened professionally:
More Effective Results
Over-the-counter whitening strips and gels only contain low concentrations of bleaching agents, around 3-10% hydrogen peroxide. Professional products are much stronger, with 15-35% hydrogen peroxide. This higher level of whitening agent produces better results.
Studies show professional whitening can make teeth up to 8 shades whiter. In contrast, over-the-counter kits lighten by just 1-2 shades.
With stronger concentrations of whitening agents, the results of professional treatments last longer. You can enjoy visibly whiter teeth for 1-3 years before you may want a touch-up treatment. Drugstore whitening kits usually only show noticeable results for a couple of months.
A major side effect of any peroxide-based whitening is increased tooth sensitivity and gum irritation. This happens less often with professional whitening.
The custom-fitted trays are very thin and flexible, which cause less gum irritation. And by carefully monitoring the process, your dentist can minimize sensitivity. Over-the-counter trays are bulkier, so they don’t fit as precisely and can overexpose your gums.
Improved Stain Removal
Some types of staining respond better to higher concentrations of peroxides. For people who smoke or consume a lot of coffee, wine, or cola drinks, professional whitening is more likely to remove stubborn stains.
Applying whitening gels under professional supervision increases safety. Your dentist will check for any signs of irritation in your gums or other side effects. They can stop the process immediately if any concerns come up.
If you have sensitive teeth or gums, your dentist may recommend a glycerin-based whitening gel that is less irritating. OTC kits don’t provide this customized care and monitoring.
Cons of Professional Whitening
While professional whitening has advantages, the downsides are:
The cost of professional teeth whitening ranges from $600-$1000. Some dentists charge as much as $2000 if you get premium whitening gels with light therapy to speed up the process. This is considerably more expensive than the $20-$100 range for over-the-counter whitening products.
However, because professional whitening is longer-lasting, it may be more cost-effective in the long run. Still, the high upfront cost puts it out of reach for many.
Multiple Appointments Needed
You’ll need to visit your dentist several times for a cycle of professional whitening sessions and occasional touch-ups. This is less convenient than quickly applying strips at home.
Making multiple appointments over several weeks can be difficult to schedule for busy people. You’ll also need to allocate commute or driving time for each appointment.
While less common than with over-the-counter kits, professional whitening can still cause temporary tooth sensitivity or gum irritation in some people. This sensitivity often goes away within 1-2 days after treatment. But for a small percentage of patients, the discomfort may linger for longer.
No teeth whitening method produces completely permanent results. Without occasional touch-ups every 1-3 years, your teeth will eventually darken from everyday habits like smoking, eating staining foods, aging, etc. You can help retain the whitening results longer by avoiding dark beverages and foods, not smoking, and practicing good oral hygiene.
Who Gets the Best Results From Professional Whitening?
Professional teeth whitening delivers the most dramatic improvements for:
- People with moderate to severe discoloration – if your teeth are yellowed or stained from food/drink habits, smoking, or medications, peroxide solutions can reduce embedded stains better than OTC whiteners.
- People with translucent teeth – teeth that are thinner and less opaque respond better to whitening gels. Denser, thicker enamel blocks penetration by peroxides.
- People with unintended wear or micro-fractures that expose stained dentin underneath enamel. Whitening can mask this underlying discoloration.
- Young people who don’t have restorations – bonding, crowns, and veneers won’t change color along with your real teeth when you whiten. Older adults often have more restorations that limit how white their overall smile will look.
Professional whitening is less successful for:
- People with restorations – the contrast between lightened real teeth and untouched restorations may look unnatural.
- People with recession exposing root surfaces – whitening only affects the enamel above the gumline. Exposed unbleached roots will remain discolored.
- People with extensive cavities or decay – whitening could make these areas more visible. It’s better to seek restorative treatment first.
- People with grey or tetracycline-stained teeth – these will lighten somewhat but peroxides can’t remove greyish discoloration entirely.
Are There Any Risks With Professional Whitening?
When used correctly under a dentist’s supervision, professional teeth whitening is generally safe. However, here are a few risks to consider:
- Increased sensitivity – This is the most common side effect, but it’s usually mild and temporary. Stopping treatment and using desensitizing toothpaste typically helps.
- Irritation of gums – Bleaching agents may cause redness, swelling or discomfort in the gums. This can be minimized with glycerin-based gels. Properly fitted trays also reduce irritation.
- Effects on fillings – Over time, hydrogen peroxide can break down metal composite materials in fillings. Avoid whitening until after new fillings are placed.
- Tooth fracture – Whitening can dehydrate teeth ever so slightly. People at high risk for fractures should get their dentist’s okay before whitening heavily stained teeth.
- Relapse – Teeth gradually revert to their original color without occasional touch-up treatments and avoiding staining habits. For some people, this can happen within a few months. Smoking is particularly linked to faster relapse.
Professional Whitening vs Other Options
Here’s how professional whitening compares to other tooth whitening options:
- Advantages: Affordable, convenient, low risk
- Disadvantages: Slower, weaker, less lasting results; higher sensitivity
In-Office Power Whitening
- Advantages: Faster visible results in one visit
- Disadvantages: Highest risk of sensitivity; results relapse quicker
- Advantages: Lowest risk and cost
- Disadvantages: Minimal whitening effect, only removes surface stains
- Advantages: Easy to apply, some lasting effect
- Disadvantages: Potential gum irritation, frequent reapplication needed
- Advantages: Dramatic whitening effect, stain-resistant porcelain
- Disadvantages: Permanent alteration of tooth structure, high cost
Is Professional Whitening Worth the Investment?
While expensive upfront, professional teeth whitening can be worth the investment if you’re looking for long-lasting whitening with dramatic results. It gives the most effective option for removing deep intrinsic stains without altering your actual teeth.
However, the high cost means it’s not realistic or necessary for everyone wanting a brighter smile. Milder over-the-counter methods may suit your needs just fine. Talk to your dentist about the best teeth whitening options for your specific discoloration issues and budget.