A Cheat Sheet When It Comes To White Teeth

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LR embedPhotographed by Atisha Paulson.
Dr. Laura Ruof, DDS, is a "floss boss." As a successful New York City dentist, she's not only made it her business to know the ins and outs of having perfect pearly whites — she's got killer style that inspires envy in just about everyone who sees her. Dr. Ruof is also our newest health and wellness contributor, sharing her tips that will help us all to smile a little brighter.

It’s a little known fact that the first draft of the Declaration of Independence read, “...life, liberty, and the pursuit of white teeth.” Yes, it’s true*: The real reason our forefathers came over and started this great country of ours was to pursue that aching, obsessive desire for gleaming, gorgeous, seemingly unattainble, white-as-can-be-yet-natural-looking teeth. Perhaps it’s in our DNA, and we’re subconsciously picking potential mates with perceived healthy mouths, but until we map the part of the brain that sets off the hotness alarm when a gleaming white smile comes our way, let’s just accept that we like white teeth. I’m especially reminded of this particular American Dream around summertime, when everyone from brides to younguns with Hamptons shares are begging me to guide them through the jungle of teeth whitening options. And it is a jungle, folks, so hop in my Jeep and listen closely — it’s about to get serious.

The easiest way to break up all the products is by at-home and in-office products. The main differences between the two are strength, cost, and effectiveness. Most products in both categories use hydrogen peroxide as the active ingredient in different ways and at different percentages. At-home products are lower in strength, lower in price, and aren’t as effective. In-office products (products that are administered and controlled by a dentist or hygienist) are higher in strength, cost more, and are more effective. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t great at-home products, it just means that if you’re going for that “I’m getting married this weekend and I don’t have time to mess around” smile, I’d recommend you ask your dentist to whiten your teeth, and use an at-home product to maintain that glow.

For the at-home products, there are whitening agents (strips, gels, pens, etc), toothpastes, and mouth rinses. Now, focus, because this is really important: Many “whitening” toothpastes are extremely abrasive. They work by scratching at your enamel to remove surface stains. Toothpastes get a rating called an RDA that tells you how abrasive it is. Use your Google and look up where your toothpaste falls. A rating of 0-70 is considered “low” abrasivity. Abrasive toothpastes give your dentist nightmares, so please, do this.

What if you’re on a special regimen of Sensodyne or Rx fluoride toothpaste? Just pick up a booster (many different companies make these), a product you use in conjunction with your toothpaste (drop of this, drop of that) on your Sonicare (the ONLY toothbrush you should be using, thanks) that will gently whiten your teeth or help you maintain your in-office whitening. Rinses work, too, but they generally make you foam at the mouth from the peroxide, and some people aren’t into that. Never, ever, ever, ever rinse with plain old hydrogen peroxide, okay? It causes ulcerations in your mouth. No.

Now, on to in-office products. You’ve probably heard of a few of these; they often have names that could be American Gladiators. Zoom. Boost. Sapphire. First, I beg you, no matter what deal you got, do not go to a tanning salon to get your teeth whitened. Your mouth is part of your body — see a professional.

The in-office whitening systems have vastly improved over the years, and many no longer cause pain and sensitivity for most patients. If the system uses a light, make sure it’s an LED light (not a laser, and not a UV light). You want to limit your UV exposure and any heat created by lights as much as possible, so choose an LED system or one that doesn’t require a light at all. After the in-office treatment, your dentist can make you custom-fit bleaching trays to take home, and you can buy the gel that goes in them at the office as well. Bleaching trays are great for maintaining the results you got in the office. You can also use the at-home products we talked about to maintain those white teeth.

Other things you can do to preserve that white smile: Avoid or limit staining foods. I tell my patients to think about what foods would be a serious chore to get out of your white jeans. Soy sauce, marinara, and beets all stain your teeth. Drink your coffee and red wine through a straw. (Actually, just switch to white wine so you don’t weird people out.) Getting a tan definitely makes your teeth look whiter, so don’t skimp on the bronzer if you want a whiter smile. A blue-red matte lip will also bring out that bright white shade and maximize the results of your whitening efforts.

Finally, the answer to the question I always get: How to prevent your teeth from getting too white. Your teeth, if they are your natural teeth, will never look “fake” white. Healthy enamel has dimension, if you see someone with too-white teeth, it’s probably porcelain.

The jungle of teeth whitening products is decidedly confusing, but it can be navigated with the knowledge you now have, and a little research. So now that I’ve made it easy for you, go out and make your forefathers proud.

* I made up that part about the Declaration of Independence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen.