In-Office vs. At-Home Teeth Whitening — the Truth

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Written by Guest | Last Updated November 8th, 2019
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One smile with some teeth whitened

Guest Post by Sabina Szatanik

In-office whitening doubtlessly gives the most impressive effects in a short amount of time. But it’s also very expensive and not covered by insurance. 

Recently, there has been an influx of home remedies that give surprisingly fruitful results. And they’re a lot cheaper! But how do they compare to what the dentist can do? 

At-home teeth whitening

You’ve probably already heard that changing your diet can help make your teeth brighter and healthier. But what if you want more drastic changes? If your discoloration is caused by extrinsic causes (drinking coffee or wine, or smoking tobacco), you can consider whitening your teeth from home.

Charcoal

charcoal whitening stas

This is one of the most popular alternative solutions. Charcoal is sourced from coconut shells, olive pits, wood, and peat. You have to be careful when using it for your teeth though, as it can turn out to be too abrasive for your enamel. Here’s how you should use it:

  1. Mix the charcoal powder with some water to make a paste.
  2. Apply to your finger for a less abrasive surface than a toothbrush.
  3. Massage your teeth.
  4. Alternate with fluoride toothpaste to avoid damage to enamel.
  5. Do not use for extended periods of time.

It shouldn’t replace your regular oral hygiene products entirely, though, “People sometimes ask me about charcoal toothpaste. I usually advise them to use any fluoridated toothpaste and use the charcoal one as an additional mechanism for whitening.” says DDS Namrita Harchandani.

Baking soda

Baking soda can be found in most households. Its properties include fighting bacteria and polishing teeth. There is actually some scientific research claiming that it is safe and that it works. You shouldn’t, however, use it more than a few times a week to avoid erosion.

Oil pulling

Coconut, sesame, or sunflower oils can help remove dirt, bacteria, and food debris. Swishing them around in your mouth is a complementary technique, and shouldn’t replace your oral hygiene. So remember to keep brushing and flossing!

Whitening kits

Especially on social media, it is common to see celebrities promoting whitening kits. They generally include a gel or serum and special light to speed up the process. They usually work like this:

  1. Smear the gel over cleaned teeth.
  2. Place the lamp into your mouth. 
  3. Most have a timer; if not, make sure to track time yourself. 
  4. The process will take about ten minutes per day.

Whitening strips

Whitening strips are covered with an active ingredient that sticks to your teeth. They are easy to use, but may give uneven coverage, especially if you have issues with crowding.

Whitening pens

If you want something more on-the-go you are going to want a whitening pen. It might be hard not to wipe the product away with lips and saliva. Some also find it awkward to apply it in public places.

In-office teeth whitening

If your discoloration is caused by intrinsic causes (infection, tooth trauma, or aging), it might be too risky to take any steps by yourself. In-office teeth whitening guarantees results. 

The three procedures below involve setting up appointments with your dentist. He or she will vouch for your mouth’s safety.

Laser teeth whitening

Similar to a whitening kit, this procedure uses a combination of light and a serum or gel. The difference is that the concentration of the active ingredient will be higher at the office. Your gums and lips will be covered with a protective gel or rubber shield.

  1. A gel or serum will be applied to your teeth.
  2. A laser light will shine onto them.
  3. This can take about ten minutes.
  4. You will get to enjoy instant results!

Gel take-home kit

This option involves your dentist, but also requires you to do some work at home. A mold of your mouth will be made at the dentist’s office. It will fit your mouth perfectly. You will have to put the gel inside and wear it. Such a solution is great if you want dramatic effects from home. 

Chairside bleaching

This method allows whitening without the light. It is recommended for sensitive teeth. The appointment might take a bit longer though. 

How do they compare?

How do alternative remedies and professional solutions compare in terms of the price, the effects, and safety to your teeth?

Cost

Using at-home remedies is considerably cheaper. Products such as baking soda and coconut oil can probably already be found in your pantry. If not, some quick grocery shopping will do the trick.

Things you will have to order or shop around for, such as strips or pens, can cost around $50 with a supply for a few weeks. Kits might be a bit more expensive, somewhere around $100.

Whitening procedures at the dentist can cost you over $500. You might also have to take a day off work or pay for childcare, depending on when your appointment is.

Effects

Baking soda does make your teeth visibly more white after a few uses. However, it only works on surface stains, as it has no bleaching properties. This means that the effects will fade after a few weeks.

Charcoal whitening and oil pulling have not been widely researched. Patient reviews online tend to praise their effects, while dentists remain skeptical. Charcoal works, like baking soda, on the basis of polishing your teeth and removing surface stains. 

According to a survey performed by Authority Dental, over 65 percent of people who used charcoal noticed that their teeth were whiter. While oils might fight bacteria and remove food debris, there isn’t much evidence that they whiten teeth significantly.

On the other hand, OTC whitening kits can give surprisingly good results. “I often recommend patients use store-bought whitening; just be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines” says DMD Matthew Stewart.

Bleaching solutions with carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide can make your teeth from five to seven shades brighter. This includes both in-office as well as at-home whitening. 

Procedures done at the dentist’s office, however, are more likely to trigger dramatic effects, and quickly too. Everything you do at home will be milder and will probably take more time.

According to Dr. Harchandani “in-office gives a substantial difference right away, as the concentration [of the active ingredients] used is much higher.” 

Safety

Quite obviously, any procedure that happens under the watchful eye of a dentist is going to be safer than amateur techniques. Whatever procedure you choose, you should always consult with a licensed professional.

The biggest issues concerned with whitening are tooth sensitivity and the abrasiveness of some materials. Bleaching teeth in any way makes them more sensitive for a while. You should abstain from smoking and eating food with tannins for at least a few hours after the treatment.

It is important to always check the abrasiveness of products you use on your teeth. The ADA does not recommend using toothpaste with an RDA (relative dentin abrasion) over 250. The higher the RDA the bigger the risk of damaging your enamel.

Charcoal whitening can be quite harsh on your teeth. The Authority Dental survey quoted above has found that over 80 percent of the respondents had no dental consultation before using this method for whitening. It should come as no surprise, then, that only a fifth of them checked the RDA of the product. 

On the other hand, among those who did have a consultation beforehand, the proportions are inverted. As many as eight out of every ten respondents checked the RDA. This is proof of their awareness on this issue. 

In the opinion of Dr. Stewart, it is much safer to use traditional teeth bleaching products than alternative methods. 

The bottom line

While it makes sense to treat intrinsic discoloration in-office and extrinsic at home, this is not always best.

A dentist will most likely advise you against working completely on your own, no matter what the cause of your discoloration is. But is this approach reasonable? Let’s have a look at the biggest differences:

At-Home

  • Cheaper
  • Milder changes
  • You can adjust it to your schedule

In-Office

  • Quicker
  • More dramatic shade change
  • The effect will probably last longer

The solution that makes a compromise between at-home and in-office whitening is a take-home kit you receive from your dentist. However, if you want to avoid visiting the dentist altogether, a teeth whitening kit might be your best bet. Make sure to compare different brands and choose what’s best for you.

Sabina Szatanik is a copy editor at Authority Dental. Breaking free from her family’s wishes to become a dentist herself (both of her parents working in the industry) she decided to marry one instead. Her great escape is writing about teeth on the internet.

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