What to Know About At-Home Whitening Products When You Have Sensitive Teeth

Getty / Delmaine Donson

Whitening your teeth at home is easier than ever with the array of products available in drug stores and online.

I personally rely on store-bought whitening strips to get my smile looking extra sparkly before special occasions. But, though my teeth look great afterwards, I always experience some uncomfortable sensitivity for a couple of days after using them.

According to Dr. David C. Gordon, DDS, of Gordon Center for General and Advanced Dentistry in Gaithersburg, MD, this sensitivity is caused by the carbamide or hydrogen peroxide present in most whitening products, though it is usually temporary and goes away after a few days. When your teeth are bleached, he explained, it removes stain from the protective enamel, so the enamel may become weaker and more porous for a short period of time.

“When the enamel is weakened, the nerve of the tooth can become irritated and the body perceives this as sensitivity,” Dr. Gordon said. “Usually, I recommend a high-fluoride toothpaste for people to help strengthen the enamel during and after whitening treatments.”

You may also experience pain if you leave your white strips on longer than recommended (this won’t make your teeth whiter), or if the whitening material gets on your gums. If you whiten in-office, your dentist may paint something onto your gums to prevent the bleach from touching them, but with at-home products, it’s up to you to be careful about placement.

Don’t be intimidated, though. The at-home whitening products sold in stores typically contain weaker concentrations of peroxide than those that require professional application by a dentist, meaning you may feel less pain. A few popular toothpaste brands sell whitening products that have versions specifically designed for people with sensitive teeth, Dr. Gordon explained. These are products with lower concentrations of peroxide that you will typically have to wear for a longer time per day or use several days in a row.

That said, if you’re worried about sensitivity but would still rather go with a professional, Dr. Gordon noted that you can talk to your dentist about using a less intense version of the bleach for an in-office treatment.

Basically, most of the teeth whiteners available at your local drugstore will likely contain the same ingredients, and the type of product – strips vs. pens – doesn’t impact efficacy or sensitivity. Dr. Gordon advised that you can look for a product with an American Dental Association seal of acceptance, though this is not required, and he warned against products making claims that seem too good to be true.

Once you’re ready to start using an at-home whitening kit, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. First of all, there’s no guarantee that your teeth will respond to the product.

“Not all stains respond well to bleaching. If you’re not getting the results you want, you can try a different product, but consider asking a dentist before trying multiple products,” said Dr. Gordon. “It’s more likely to be the type of stain, rather than the product if you’re not getting the results you want.”

Dr. Gordon also shared some insights that most people don’t consider when they’re trying to brighten up their smiles. For example, whiteners cannot change the color of fillings, crowns, or bondings.

Also – and this one is a big surprise – you are way more susceptible to new stains while bleaching your teeth because of the aforementioned temporary porosity of your enamel. Definitely try to avoid coffee, tea, or red wine when using white strips.

Above all, remember to use all products as directed and ask your dentist if you have any questions or concerns.

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