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Sparkly smiles - the lowdown on teeth whitening by Kate Brian

Having a sparkly white smile can make all the difference to how you look - and feel - but not everyone is blessed with naturally gleaming teeth. As we get older, years of drinking tea, coffee and red wine will have an effect on the appearance of our teeth, making them duller or stained. Now, more and more people are opting to have cosmetic whitening, but deciding which method is safest and most effective can be confusing - so we've put together some useful advice for anyone who may be dreaming of a whiter smile.

What different methods are used to whiten teeth?

There are a number of different methods that you may come across if you are considering whitening your teeth, from 'natural' methods using products you may already have at home to procedures which can only be carried out by a dentist.

Which whitening products that can be used at home?

There are many home whitening products on sale now at pharmacies, but they vary in effectiveness. Whitening toothpastes or special toothbrushes often do little more than clean the teeth thoroughly, which can make them look slightly cleaner and whiter. Some of the whitening toothpastes have the potential to damage tooth enamel if used excessively for a prolonged period.

Your local pharmacy may have a range of home tooth whitening kits, but these vary in effectiveness and may come with some risks too. The British Dental Association warns against home whitening kits that involve putting a tooth bleaching product into a mouthguard tray; the tray won't have been specially designed for your mouth and this can lead to leakage causing blistering or sensitivity. Some of the home whitening kits which contain low levels of whitening products aren't likely to make much difference to the colour of your teeth anyway.

Whitening strips are very popular in the United States, but are not on sale in shops in the UK although they can be purchased online. Some brands contain high concentrations of bleaching chemicals and have been linked to problems with sensitivity and gum irritation. Regular use of these strips could damage the tooth enamel.

There are also some more natural methods of whitening teeth which are often seen as safer because they involve products which you may already have around the home. Common natural whitening products include baking soda, lemon juice or crushed strawberries. Some of these may make the teeth look brighter, but the fact that they are 'natural' doesn’t mean that they are completely risk-free. Using some of these products, which can be very acidic or abrasive, may damage tooth enamel and you should be aware of this.

What about whitening methods used in High Street beauty salons or in specialist units in shopping centres?

You may have come across whitening booths in larger shopping centres, and many beauty salons offer whitening too, but this should only be performed with a dental professional (that may be a dentist, a dental hygienist or a dental therapist//0 present as the General Dental Council has ruled that whitening is a form of dentistry. As a result of the General Dental Council's decision, whitening by people who aren't qualified is illegal.

The type of whitening offered at whitening booths is often light-accelerated bleaching (also known as laser whitening or power whitening), which involves painting a bleaching product onto the teeth and then shining a light onto them to activate the whitening. This process usually takes about an hour.

What happens if I go to a dentist for teeth whitening?

Some dentists carry out the type of light-accelerated bleaching described above, but others prefer a longer-term whitening process which involves several visits to the dental surgery. The dentist will begin by taking an impression of your teeth to make a mouthguard and will instruct you how to use it with a bleaching gel. Then, using your mouthguard at home, you regularly apply the gel for a specified period of time over two to four weeks. Some whitening gels can be left on for longer, which can shortens the treatment period.

Can anyone have their teeth whitened?

You should check with your dentist whether whitening will be suitable for you. Most people can have their teeth whitened, but your dentist may advise against it if you have crowns or gum disease.

How long will whitening last?

The length of time whitening will last depends on whether you smoke and drink a lot of tea, coffee and red wine which will all stain your teeth. If your teeth stain quickly, it may only last a few months but whitening can last for a few years for some people.

For more information about tooth whitening, you may want to visit the British Dental Association’s website, where you can find their list of seven things you didn’t know about tooth whitening

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