There are ways to make whitening your teeth at home less painful if you have sensitive teeth, like switching from a hydrogen-peroxide-based product to one with carbamide-peroxide (more on that later). But if you’re nervous about the pain, all of the dentists I consulted said professional whitening is the way to go — and it’s not just because they want your money. The newest professional treatments feature desensitizing agents and a neutral-pH bleach that minimizes “zingers,” the electric-shock pain unique to teeth.
Before I offer some tips to reduce sensitivity, no matter which whitening treatment you choose, I have a confession: I have zero journalistic objectivity when it comes to this topic. I blame whitening strips for the worst sleep of my life — which is saying something, considering I once spent a night alone lying on a trash bag in a Costa Rican jungle getting bitten by army ants until dawn. That outdoor adventure was heaven compared to the time I reviewed a now-defunct brand of “luxury” whitening strips for a magazine assignment. I applied the strips as directed and felt okay for a few hours, but by the time evening rolled around, I could no longer swallow. My gums were inflamed, my teeth felt like raw nerve endings, and the cold-hot pain was so intense it buzzed in my ears. I took a triple dose of Tylenol PM and spent the night wide awake in the fetal pose, with my forehead propped on a pillow so I could drool into a pint glass. Never again, I vowed.
In the decade since that happened, I’ve been content to watch my teeth move along the Pantone chart from Whisper White to a comforting Putty. It’s a natural progression, of course. As we age, foods and beverages stain our teeth and the enamel wears down, revealing the yellowish dentin within. Acidic foods and beverages speed up the process, says Victoria Veytsman, DDS, a cosmetic dentist in New York City and Beverly Hills, California. “White wine can actually lead to as much staining as red wine because it’s more acidic,” she says. To slow discoloration, the best thing you can do is rinse with water after consuming things that are acidic or staining, like wine, coffee, and tea. Drinking from a straw may also help. And Dr. Veytsman recommends getting your teeth cleaned regularly, flossing, and using an electric toothbrush with whitening toothpaste (the only one my traumatized teeth can handle is Sensodyne True White). “Whatever you do, don’t use charcoal products because they’re too abrasive and may actually stain teeth and cause sensitivity in the future,” she says.
If you want to attempt at-home whitening, I applaud your courage. Strips, gels, and pens typically lift stains with either carbamide peroxide (found in Kendall Jenner’s teeth-whitening pen) or hydrogen peroxide (which is in the Spotlight Oral Care Teeth Whitening Pen that went viral last year). “Hydrogen-peroxide products typically have a higher concentration of peroxide, so they may be more likely to cause tooth sensitivity or irritation,” warns Bridget Glazarov, DDS, co-founder, with Ellen Katz, DDS, of the cosmetic dental practice Maison Be. “If someone has heightened sensitivity, switching to a lower concentration, carbamide-peroxide-based product may work better,” she says. Daniel Rubinshtein, DDS, a cosmetic dentist in New York City, also suggests using a desensitizing toothpaste like Sensodyne one week prior to any type of treatment to help minimize discomfort.
But whitening at home is a one-size-fits-all treatment: There’s no way to customize the concentration of active ingredients, and the bleach can easily migrate onto your gums, causing burns and sensitivity, says Dr. Glazarov. If you have sensitive teeth (trust me, you know if you do), it’s best to see a professional. Not only can they adjust for all those factors, they can give you a prescription desensitizing paste to brush with before and after whitening. “They have fluoride and hydroxyapatite minerals that help seal the dentinal tubules — essentially the pores of your teeth — reducing the sensitivity caused by whitening,” says Dr. Katz.
She, Dr. Glazarov, and Dr. Rubinshtein say their patients with sensitive teeth have gotten excellent results with KöR Whitening, which is available in office or as a take-home treatment with custom trays. KöR features a special pre- and post-treatment desensitizing agent (potassium oxalate) that temporarily fuses dentinal tubules, preventing pressure changes that cause dentinal fluid in the tubules to move rapidly (dentists believe that movement causes the zinging pain of teeth whitening). The KöR whitening agent is also different; it features a neutral pH and aqueous format — two characteristics that may make the whitening process less painful. “It has to be delivered and stored in a temperature-controlled cooler” to maintain its stability, explains Dr. Katz. Just be warned: You may still experience sensitivity with KöR (experts say there’s no whitening system that’s guaranteed to be pain free). And the treatments aren’t cheap (the average patient-reported cost for KöR teeth whitening is $840, according to RealSelf).
If the color of your teeth affects your confidence or keeps you from smiling, it may be worth considering a professional treatment. But if you want to brighten your smile because you think your teeth bother other people, I promise you’re wrong. Just take a moment to think about a person you know who has really yellow teeth — like so discolored that you can barely look at them. My guess is you can’t come up with a name. That’s because no one is paying as much attention to the color of your teeth as you are. And if there’s someone out there who has actually said something to you about your teeth, please email me their name and address so I can send them a free trial of some acidic, super-intense, hydrogen-peroxide, one-size-fits-all whitening strips with my best wishes.
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