In a digital era dominated by social media and the need for constant validation, we humans seem to be more self-conscious than ever. Thanks to the ability to zoom, edit, compare, and contrast, we’re hyper aware of every single one of our “flaws.” And, although it may seem like a small thing, one of the most common American insecurities has to do with our teeth—more specifically, the whiteness of our teeth.
Everyone wants a beautiful smile, with sparkling white teeth. And while a large component of this comes down to dental hygiene, there’s a genetic aspect to it as well. Fortunately, if you are unhappy with the color, look, or shine of your teeth, there are several remedies at your disposal. But how does teeth whitening work?
Let’s dive in.
What is Tooth Whitening
There are a variety of teeth cleaning methods at your disposal that can be done at home for little cost or in-office for whiter teeth. The type of tooth whitening you need will likely depend upon your specific teeth and/or discolorations. Frankly, regardless of what you select, it’s crucial that you continue taking daily preventative measures such as regularly brushing and water flossing your teeth.
There’s little doubt that Americans are preoccupied with self-image. We live in a culture that encourages people to be constantly improving their body, style, and overall appearance. While self-improvement is by no means a bad thing in and of itself, it’s worrisome when a person allows their outward appearance to impact their self-worth.
That said, the impact of society’s perceptions is hard to ignore. Per the Sociology of Health and Illness:1
“Similar to the development of body image, dental aesthetic tendencies are influenced by ideal representations that are in turn determined by various socio‐cultural and individual factors. These ideals are disseminated via socialization agents, of which mass media plays a significant role. On a daily basis, the media is flooded with advertisements and messages that capitalize on the body image‐related insecurities of the masses.”
You might be surprised by how common tooth surface color insecurity is amongst Americans. In fact, according to the NY Post2, a study was conducted that found the following:
- 57% of Americans cover their mouths when they laugh or smile due to insecurity about their teeth.
- 62% of young adults are embarrassed about their smile or laugh.
- 70% of people admit to feeling self-conscious about their teeth.
- 25% of people have received a negative comment from someone close to them.
- 61% of people wished to change something about their teeth, whiteness being the number one factor.
- More people were self-conscious about their teeth than any other facial feature.
Whether it be from years of watching TV and movies or the constant inundation of beautiful, smiling print models in every form of advertisement, we as a society have come to associate straight, shiny, lustrous white teeth as the beauty standard.
So, when every-day people see these shining examples of dental perfection and then look in the mirror to compare their own teeth, they end up feeling bad about themselves. What many fail to understand is that you don’t have to be a model or a millionaire to have white teeth—there are simple ways to address the issue.
Although our teeth have become associated with aesthetic beauty, evolutionarily they serve a single purpose—to help us eat. Paleontologist Peter Ungar writes3:
“Teeth are a unique, enduring archive of a lifetime’s experiences, stretching back to before birth. They can reveal childhood hardship, seasonal migration, exposure to pollution, radiation or congenital syphilis, cultural modification, and age at death — as well as a wealth of information about diet…Hard, brittle foods such as seeds can be crushed between teeth with rounded cusps and shallow basins. Tough foods, such as raw meat or leaves, need to be sliced or sheared by teeth with thinner, blade-like crests.“
Over time, your teeth naturally discolor and stain as a result of the various things you eat, drink, or put in your mouth. Typically, dental stains are broken up into one of three categories:
- Extrinsic discoloration – Appears on the outer tooth surface, known as the enamel, and are caused by a variety of factors including:
While some of the discoloration can be removed by regular brushing of the teeth, over time, there’s only so deep a toothbrush can scrub to get those teeth stains.
- Intrinsic discoloration – When the inner structure of the tooth, known as the dentin, goes dark or takes on a yellow hue. Intrinsic stains exist behind and between microcracks in the enamel and require special tools or methodologies by a dentist to address. This is often caused by:
- Childhood illness
- High fluoride levels
- Tooth trauma
- Age-related discoloration – Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors combine with time to yellow the dentin. As you age, your tooth enamel thins, which makes the dentin more apparent.
Chemically speaking, these stains consist of compounds with darker or colored shades known as chromogens, which accumulate in and on the teeth. There are two forms of chromogen:
- Metal containing compounds
- Large organic compounds with conjugated double bonded structures
This is important because certain whitening methods are better at addressing one type of chromogen or the other.
How Does Teeth Whitening Work?
As you likely know, there are a variety of whitening methods, each with its own specific action mechanism. The effectiveness of the method is heavily dependent upon what type of tooth discoloration it’s attempting to fix. That said, we can speak generally about the whitening process itself.
Basically, tooth whitening can be referred to as any method that attempts to lighten the color of the tooth. It may physically remove a stain or create a chemical reaction to lighten the color. But, as mentioned, every single dental whitening method comes down to how they address chromogens.
Most often they’re separated into two categories: cleansers and bleaches. Here are some of the top teeth whitening methods.
Cleansers typically contain detergents and abrasives or use similar methodologies to remove chromogens from the tooth’s surface. There are methods of how to whiten your teeth at home naturally or during a routine teeth cleaning at the dentist’s office. In most instances, they are only capable of removing a shade or two, which is why these are best used for milder cases of tooth discoloration. Examples include:
- Whitening toothpastes – These often will contain higher concentrations of detergents and abrasives in order to address or remove deeper stains. They do not contain a bleaching agent, but some may have low levels of hydrogen peroxide to promote a brighter smile.
- Whitening rinses – Like toothpaste, rinses have oxygen sources like hydrogen peroxide which interact with chromogens, remove germs, and help fight plaque buildup. Most will take 3 months of daily use to change dental coloration even slightly.
- Water flossers – Simply put, brushing isn’t enough. It only cleans the surface but fails to adequately address the bacteria and plaque that grow between the teeth and under the gumline. Tools such as a water flosser can help eliminate chromogens that could stain your teeth.
Bleaching products create a chemical reaction with chromogens that lighten the color. Now, you may naturally wonder what is in a teeth whitening bleaching agent? In answer to that, Professor Clifton Carey writes4:
“Bleaching is defined here as the chemical degradation of the chromogens. The active ingredient in most whitening products is hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) which is delivered as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. Carbamide peroxide is a stable complex that breaks down in contact with water to release hydrogen peroxide. Because carbamide peroxide releases hydrogen peroxide the chemistry of most tooth whitening is that of hydrogen peroxide.”
For milder cases, there are over the counter treatments, including:
- Whitening strips and gels – Over the counter strips and gel use hydrogen peroxide or peroxide-based formulas that are applied to the teeth on a daily basis for a given amount of time. After a few weeks, they can lighten the tooth surface by a few shades.
- Tray-based teeth whiteners – Although this can be done both professionally and at home, it typically involves wearing a fitted tray, containing carbamide peroxide-bleaching gel, for two to four hours per day.
By making good dental hygiene a habit, you can ensure that your whitened teeth stay white. And by including ToothShower in your daily hygiene habits, you’re improving your oral care!
- Sociology of Health and Illness. Straight, White teeth as a social prerogative. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-9566.12238
- New York Post. More than half of Americans feel insecure about their teeth. https://nypost.com/2019/01/24/more-than-half-of-americans-feel-insecure-about-their-teeth/
- Nature. Paleontology: Evolution with Teeth. https://www.nature.com/articles/545026a
- NCBI. Tooth Whitening: What We Now Know. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4058574/
- NCBI. Dental Bleaching Techniques. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4311381/