Dear Daniela: Do At-Home Teeth Whitening Products Actually Work?

illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi.
Dear Daniela,
I’m getting a lot of promoted ads on Instagram for teeth-whitening stuff – oil pulling, special toothpastes, that sort of thing. Plus I’ve seen a lot of influencers advertising 'blue light' or 'LED' teeth whitening. It sounds really good and it’s quite affordable, I’m just not 100% convinced it all works. Is it safe? What should I buy?
Laura, 26
If it were easy to whiten teeth with a bit of coconut oil or a £30 'light mask', we would all look like Love Island's Jack Fincham (well, in the mouth, anyway). The truth in beauty here – and I’m aware I’m starting on quite a disappointing note, but stay with me – is that there are very few safe, effective ways to whiten teeth, and most of them need to be dispensed by a dentist, not a beauty blogger.
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Let’s tackle oil pulling first, which is probably the most harmless. I asked my dentist, the unflappable Dr Uchenna Okoye of London Smiling, for her take: "[Oil pulling] is sometimes considered a type of natural mouthwash," she said. "Swilling a tablespoon of it around the mouth for 10 minutes is said to literally pull the bad bacteria off your teeth, leaving you with a clean, fresh mouth." There is no real research to confirm this works but it probably won’t do you any harm. Dr Okoye continued: "Remember to always rinse with water after spitting out the oil. Realistically, if you dig into many of the stories you will find the ones with good results actually do a combination of brushing and oil pulling." My only addition here is that chugging a tablespoon of oil around your gums for 10 whole minutes sounds about as much fun as stepping on a plug, but that may just be me.
As for those light kits, Dr Okoye told me that they mimic a procedure used in-clinic, but without the clinical potency, they’re a waste of money. In terms of bougie toothpastes (did you know there’s a £77 toothpaste out there?), Dr Okoye said: "Here in the UK, you can only legally include 0.1% peroxide in a toothpaste. It’s not enough to whiten teeth, but it can help remove surface stains. As for charcoal, it’s not bad per se, just make sure it’s not too abrasive as this can cause damage. My grandma used to scrub her pans with charcoal!"
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The only way to get safe, effective whitening? By taking a visit to your dentist. "Fear of the dentist is a big problem," admitted Dr Okoye, "but I’m actually phobic, too! That’s part of why I became a dentist, to help get rid of some fear. Also, dentistry has moved on so much even in the last five years. The tools are less scary and less painful." What your dentist will most likely do is take impressions of your teeth to give you a custom set of 'trays', which you then wear at night. You fill the trays with whitening gel, also given by your dentist, and are advised to wear them at night for around two weeks. "The maximum strength in the UK is 6% hydrogen peroxide," added Dr Okoye.
You might find stronger treatments available to buy online from other countries, but they can be unsafe, not to mention illegal. "Buying whitening treatments without seeing a dentist, whether that’s online or at a salon is so risky," cautioned Dr Okoye. "For example, your teeth may not be suitable for whitening. The untrained eye can’t see whether gums are receding, which would then cause major sensitivity and even potentially burn the gums. Also, they can’t tell how the enamel will respond to whitening. Whitening could do more damage than good to the structure of our teeth."
Dentistry outside of a dentist’s office is something of a Wild West. At best, your teeth may show minimal improvements, at worst, you could cause permanent damage. There are some good whitening toothpastes out there from totally pedestrian brands like Oral B and Colgate, which are fine to use while you debate whether you want to splurge on whitening. Also, an apple a day doesn’t just keep the doctor away – they’re often cited as one of nature’s tooth whiteners, along with strawberries. Far tastier than a mouthful of coconut oil, if you ask me.
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Good luck!
Daniela
Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email deardaniela@refinery29.uk, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to ‘Dear Daniela’ become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.
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