Smile Smarts: The Real Deal On At-Home Teeth Whitening

As a wise woman once told us, "there's nothing more attractive than a confident woman with a great smile." Unfortunately, maintaing a killer grin this time of year is not the easiest undertaking. All those things we love to imbibe during the holidays — red wine, eggnog lattes, and enough sugar to give an elf a root canal — aren't doing our mouths any favors.
Fortunately, whitening your teeth at home has never been easier, thanks to what feels like a billion different options (strips! trays! gizmos!) to fit every budget and need. Finding the right one for you can be a chore (not to mention a major drain on your wallet), so we asked Dr. Irwin Smigel, celebrity cosmetic DDS and inventor of Supersmile, to give us the DL on all the smile-enhancing options out there.
Here, you'll find a field guide to the six most popular methods of whitening — both at-home and in the office — and Dr. Smigel's breakdown what each one does, along with the pros and cons of each. Read on to get the down and dirty details on cleaning up your smile.
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Photographed by Maia Harms
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"Whitening strips are very thin polyethylene strips that are coated with a peroxide-based whitening gel, which should be applied twice a day for two weeks," Smigel says. "The strips are applied to upper and lower teeth twice a day for 30 minutes per application. This process continues for two weeks." Some newer versions require less of a time commitment and can be used in as little as two hours.

"The strips provide a consistent application of the whitening agent and dentists have found that the strips have produced noticeably whiter results," Smigel says. "Results are seen in a few days, and final results are sustained for about four months.

"The disadvantage with whitening strips is that they are one-size-fits-all and fit best on the upper front 6-8 teeth. If your teeth are even and fairly average in size, you should not have a problem," Smigel says. "However, if teeth are larger than normal or uneven, the strip will whiten teeth unevenly since it can only lighten the area that it covers." Another downside: increased tooth sensitivity is common among users of whitening strips.

Crest 3D White Whitestrips Intensive Professional Effects, $50.99, available at
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"Your simplest and safest whitening option is to regularly brush with a non-abrasive whitening toothpaste," Smigel says. "Whitening toothpastes are perfect for those on a budget who want gradual and consistent whitening."

Many toothpastes claim to whiten teeth, but only select ingredients do so safely and effectively. "Most whitening toothpastes work on the principle of abrasion," Smigel says. But, he advises, it's best to stay away from toothpastes that list silica as an ingredient — especially if it's at the top of the list, since that means there's a high concentration of it. "Silica is an abrasive ingredient that scratches the stain from the tooth enamel," he explains. "It presents concerns in continued usage, especially on bonding, veneers, and other dental restorations." And, once your enamel is scratched, teeth are actually more susceptible to stains.

What else should you avoid? Sodium lauryl sulfate, a common detergent that can aggravate (and even cause!) oral problems such as canker sores and bad breath. "Instead, look for those that contain ingredients such as calcium peroxide, carbamide peroxide, and urea peroxide," Smigel says. "These ingredients are the safest, most effective whitening ingredients that will gradually whiten teeth without causing sensitivity."

Supersmile Professional Whitening System, $36, available at SkinStore.
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Ionic System

These teeth whitening systems use ionic technology to remove surface stains caused by food, wine, coffee, and smoking. After applying a hydrogen peroxide-based gel to your teeth, you'll use a double-bite mouthpiece for five minutes. "Once the unit is switched on, a mild micro-current transfers to the whitening gel formula," Smigel says. "The hydrogen peroxide in the gel transforms to oxygen to break down stains on the teeth. The ionic technology reduces tartar buildup and kills bacteria that cause bad breath."

If patience isn't among your virtues, an ionic system might be right for you. "The unique design of the tray allows whitening of the front, back, top and bottom of all teeth at the same time," Smigel says. "A few shades' difference can be immediately seen after each treatment, so it's perfect for people who don't have a lot of time to devote to enhancing their smiles."

But, if you're dreaming of an eternal gleaming smile, you may need to adjust your expectations. Because the formula's hydrogen peroxide dehydrates teeth, they may become more sensitive, and whitening results can be temporary. "Once the teeth rehydrate, often in one week, the whiteness will subside," Smigel says. "Touch-up treatments every three months are recommended." He notes that if you have a dental restoration or sensitive chompers, it's best to pass on this method.

Tanda Pearl Ionic Teeth Whitening Kit, $195, available at Ulta.
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"Whitening trays are one of the most popular methods of whitening your teeth," Smigel says. "This is also the most practical and price-friendly for patients on a budget. What's great about this whitening method is its ability to remove some mild, intrinsic stains within the tooth enamel, and whiten naturally yellowing teeth." Expect your teeth to go at least three shades whiter than your natural color.

Tray-based systems, available over the counter or from a dentist, involve filling a tray with a gel whitening formula. (Typically, the bleaching agent is hydrogen peroxide.) You'll wear the tray for anywhere between a couple of hours per day to overnight. Fit is key, of course, and over-the-counter trays aren't as precisely measured. "Unlike over-the-counter mouthpieces, professional whitening trays are only custom fitted by a dentist, so that the tray fits comfortably and protects your gums and soft tissue," Smigel notes.

Most kits deliver full whitening benefits between two and four weeks — and it's important to have realistic hopes. "Although a dentist's bleaching gel is more powerful than over-the-counter products, professional at-home whitening treatments can't remove iron deposit stains or the deep, intrinsic stains caused by antibiotics or deep fluoride discolorations," Smigel notes. Another precaution: the powerful gel can be toxic if swallowed, so be careful if using trays overnight or for a prolonged period. "Often, people use at-home treatments indefinitely. That can lead to over-bleaching and permanent damage to the enamel, and it can harm gums," Smigel says. So, if you're thinking of wearing a tray indefinitely... don't.

Rembrandt 2 Hour Whitening Kit, $19.97, available at Walmart.
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Light Therapy

You might have seen this gadget on TV. Light-based teeth whitening systems claim to whiten teeth up to five shades in as few as five days. "A peroxide-based whitening solution ampule is filled into a mouthpiece that contains a molded flexible circuit with activating light and heat," Smigel says. "The mouthpiece is placed over teeth for an eight-minute session. The 'activating light' is said to speed whitening results without tooth sensitivity." After four initial 32-minute sessions in the first three to five days, you can then maintain results with a total of 32 minutes per month.

"In my opinion, these products are not realistic," Smigel says. "The light used is an LED light, and there has been no conclusive research that any of these at-home teeth whitening lights are effective. Not to mention that the systems themselves can be quite costly."

Glo Brilliant Personal Teeth Whitening Device, $199, available at Sephora.
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Professional Treatment

"If money is no object and you are looking for incredible same-day results, then professional in-office whitening treatments are an ideal choice," Smigel says. "They're the quickest way to see dramatic results because they can be performed in one office visit in as little as one hour, and these treatments use formulations and equipment that are not available for at-home use. A hydrogen peroxide solution is placed on the tooth surface activated by a patented blue-spectrum light. Over a period of three 15-minute intervals, the light activates the solution and lightens teeth."

The results of the light-and-gel pairing are often drastic, lightening teeth up to seven shades within one office visit. And, because these treatments are administered by dentists or hygienists, the risk factor is minimal. "Despite safety precautions, some patients may experience sensitivity within the first 24 hours and occasionally much longer following the procedure," Smigel explains, adding that this treatment doesn't end once you've left the dental office. "Without proper maintenance, teeth will begin to regress naturally — and even quicker, once tobacco and other tooth-staining foods are consumed." So kick the cigs, choose white wine over red, and you'll have plenty of reason to smile.