Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri via @NYCSmileDesignInstagram
If you love red wine, coffee or soy sauce—if you love life, really—you may have noticed that your teeth aren’t as white as they used to be. If you watch The Bachelor—the camera panning over 30 eager sets of blindingly white Chiclets—you might wonder if your teeth have ever been truly white. But, whether your teeth are yellow-ish thanks to genetics or lifestyle, there have never been more ways to make them whiter. ELLE.com talked to cosmetic dentist Dr. Elisa Mello of NYC Smile Design to find out what your options are and what to expect.
Why aren’t my teeth whiter?
The color of your teeth boils down to two things: the thickness of your tooth enamel, and whether the enamel is stained. “Genetics play a role in the color, quality and type of enamel you inherit,” says Mello. Thin enamel is translucent, revealing the yellow inner part of the tooth, while a thicker, opaque layer of enamel makes teeth whiter and brighter. But either kind of enamel can become stained from plaque and bacteria, tobacco use, certain prescription drugs, and darkly-colored food and drink. “A good rule to follow is, any food or drink that can stain clothes can also stain your teeth,” Dr Mello says.
What are my options for getting whiter teeth?
For the fastest and most dramatic results, schedule an in-office bleaching with your dentist. They’ll apply a highly concentrated bleaching product directly to your teeth and speed up the whitening process with a special light or laser. Less than two hours later, your teeth will be three to eight shades lighter—and you’ll be out anywhere from $600 to $1500.
If you want to spend less money—and are a little bit patient—you can whiten your teeth at home. For less than $500, your dentist may make you custom trays fitted to your teeth that you can fill with whitening gel and wear at home. The bleach will be less concentrated than what’s used in office, and you’ll have to wear the trays for several hours a day over the course of weeks.
You can also buy one-size-fits-all trays and bleaching gels with an even lower concentration over the counter at the drugstore, often for less than $100. Other drugstore options that can whiten your teeth by a shade are bleaching strips and whitening toothpaste. “Whitening toothpastes can be abrasive,” warns Dr. Mello, “so it’s best to use them carefully—only when you have really indulged in stain producing foods and beverages.” She recommends using them once a week to get off the week’s worth of coffee.
In general, teeth whitening systems work best on teeth that have yellow tones, Dr. Mellow explains, as opposed to grey, black, or blue-stained teeth. If you’re dealing with those shades, you should see a dentist for a multi-step plan, possibly including veneers.
How should I prepare for getting my teeth whitened?
Before introducing harsh bleach products, it’s important that your mouth is in overall good health. According to Dr. Mello, that means: no cavities in need of filling, no dental decay, no exposed roots or bleeding gums. If you can schedule your semi-annual dental cleaning and polishing prior to whitening, she adds, you’ll improve the effects of whitening.
What should I expect during and after getting my teeth whitened?
An in-office whitening is mildly uncomfortable and, in my experience, completely worth it. You’ll be lying down with your mouth open for one to three rounds of 15-minute bleaching. Bring lip balm so your lips don’t dry out, and your headphones so you don’t get bored.
Whether you’re bleaching at the dentist’s office or on your couch, you can expect teeth to be more sensitive than normal in the following days. For me, that ranged from overall sensitivity to hot, cold and crunchy foods to occasional twinges of pain deep inside the teeth. Take a pain reliever like Motrin before you start whitening, and repeat according to the instructions on the bottle. You may also want to temporarily swap out your toothbrush for one with extra soft bristles.
How can I keep my whitened teeth looking bright?
Buy an environmentally friendly, reusable straw for your iced coffees, teas and, if you’re really cool, red wines, and brush your teeth immediately after consuming stuff known to stain teeth. At-home whitening trays can be used to maintain an in-office whitening before a big event, or you can schedule a touch up to coincide with your next cleaning and check-up. Finally, Dr. Mello says you could consider swapping out your orange- and brown-hued lipsticks for ones with purple or pink undertones. They’ll bring out that hard-earned, blue-white gleam.