In the blossoming world of cosmetic dentistry, teeth whitening reigns supreme. Universally valued by men and women alike, whitening (or bleaching) treatments are available to satisfy every budget, time frame and temperament.
Whether in the form of one-hour bleaching sessions at your dentist’s office, or home-use bleaching kits purchased at your local drugstore, teeth whitening solutions abound. Yet only 15 percent of the population has tried the cosmetic procedure, and misinformation on the subject is rife.
The long and the short of it is that teeth whitening works. Virtually everyone who opts for this cosmetic treatment will see moderate to substantial improvement in the brightness and whiteness of their smile. However, teeth whitening is not a permanent solution and requires maintenance or “touch-ups” for a prolonged effect.
Bleaching vs. Whitening
According to the FDA, the term “bleaching” is permitted to be used only when the teeth can be whitened beyond their natural color. This applies strictly to products that contain bleach — typically hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.
The term “whitening,” on the other hand, refers to restoring a tooth’s surface color by removing dirt and debris. So any product that cleans (like a toothpaste) is considered a whitener. Of course, the term whitening sounds better than bleaching, so it is more frequently used — even when describing products that contain bleach.
Why Teeth Whitening? Examining Enamel
Most of us start out with sparkling white teeth, thanks to their porcelain-like enamel surface. Composed of microscopic crystalline rods, tooth enamel is designed to protect the teeth from the effects of chewing, gnashing, trauma and acid attacks caused by sugar. But over the years enamel is worn down, becoming more transparent and permitting the yellow color of dentin — the tooth’s core material — to show through.
During routine chewing, dentin remains intact while millions of micro-cracks occur in the enamel. It is these cracks, as well as the spaces between the crystalline enamel rods, that gradually fill up with stains and debris. As a result, the teeth eventually develop a dull, lackluster appearance.
Teeth whitening removes the stains and debris, leaving the enamel cracks open and exposed. Some of the cracks are quickly re-mineralized by saliva, while others are filled up again with organic debris.