How To Whiten Your Teeth — Whether Your Budget Is $5 Or $500

Rachel Lubitz

Every now and then, you realize just how lucky we are to live in the 21st century. Take, for example, the simple task of teeth whitening.

Back in ancient Egypt, some 4,000 years ago, people concocted whitening paste made of ground pumice stone and wine vinegar. In ancient Rome, they swished urine (yes, urine) around in their mouths to brighten their teeth a few shades. In the 17th century, barbers were responsible for filing people's teeth down, then brushing on acid to give them a whiter appearance.

Now though? It's as easy as swinging by Target, popping a couple whitening strips in your mouth, and kicking back for an episode of Fleabag.

Still, even with all the modern innovations now readily available, there is still a lot of confusion around the best and safest methods for getting a whiter smile. So, we asked top dentists for their no-B.S. answers to our burning teeth-whitening questions. From the most effective kitchen ingredients to what you can expect from an in-office treatment, check out their pro advice, ahead.

Can you whiten your teeth naturally?

Yes, but there's a catch. As cosmetic dentist Matt Nejad, DDS, who's based in Beverly Hills, California, says, there are two degrees of teeth whitening. One is removing stains from the surface, caused by things like coffee and red wine. That can easily be achieved with natural products. "Coconut oil is decent at removing stains from the surface, as are strawberries," Dr. Nejad says. "Clay in toothpaste is also great because it's really good at sticking to things on the surface and then removing them."

However, none of those natural ingredients are actually capable of whitening your teeth beyond just scrubbing away surface stains. "Unless you had white teeth last month, and they just got discolored with coffee, none of these are whitening your teeth," Dr. Nejad says. "It’s like going back to your natural tint."

To actually whiten teeth, New York City and Los Angeles-based cosmetic dentist Victoria Veytsman, DDS, looks to one particular ingredient. "The only thing that can fully whiten your teeth is hydrogen peroxide," Dr. Veytsman says, adding that it's the active compound most commonly found in whitening strips and gels.

Does charcoal really whiten teeth?

For someone who is looking to naturally remove stains from their teeth, you're likely going to come across a wide variety of charcoal-packed products. But according to dentists, natural doesn't always mean safe. "Charcoal is good at removing stains on the surface, but it can be too abrasive," warns Dr. Nejad. "If the product's got the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance, then it’s safe, but many charcoal products are not well-regulated."

According to New York City-based cosmetic dentist Andi-Jean Miro, DDS, of the Apa Rosenthal Group, a harsh charcoal product can seriously damage teeth in the long term. "Charcoal and charcoal toothpastes contain abrasive particles that can wear away the enamel on your tooth," Dr. Miro says. "Once the enamel is gone, the tooth can become weaker and more prone to demineralization and sensitivity."

Can you whiten teeth with baking soda?

Baking soda is a much safer natural solution, according to these dentists. "It's not too abrasive," Dr. Nejad says. "A lot of toothpastes use baking soda, and they do remove surface stains. It's just not to the point where it’s shocking."

Even still, Dr. Miro says that you still want to be careful when using this ingredient. "While short-term, your teeth may appear whiter, in the long-term, teeth may become more sensitive and enamel structure may become weaker," she says.

Bottom line: If you're using any abrasive dental-care products, be sure to monitor your sensitivity and continue to visit your dentist twice a year to ensure you're not damaging your teeth beyond repair. Because once that enamel is gone, it's gone for good.

How can I get rid of yellow teeth?

Before you even reach for strips or trays, you want to ensure your overall dental health is excellent — which might mean booking that cleaning you've been putting off for months. "To cover all bases, make sure your oral hygiene is immaculate," Dr. Nejad says. "One way people have yellow teeth is because of plaque buildup, which should be broken down twice a year at your dentist."

The next step is to use a really good toothpaste and toothbrush daily. Dr. Veytsman loves Phillips Sonicare toothbrushes because they removes stains much better than a manual toothbrush. She also recommends Crest 3D White Radiant Mint toothpaste, which she says works to prevent surface stains from developing in the first place.

How long does it take to whiten teeth?

How fast you see results is completely dependent on the method you choose. For those seeking instant gratification, there's Zoom, an in-office procedure that uses both lasers and 25% hydrogen peroxide gel (the strongest percentage available to dentists) to whiten teeth. After you spend an hour in the dentist's chair — and fork over anywhere from $300 to $700 — your teeth can look up to eight shades whiter. "You're going to see immediate results," says Dr. Veytsman.

Then there's custom whitening trays that you can get from your dentist, which come with prescription hydrogen peroxide gel that you squeeze into the trays yourself. You wear them overnight, which means around eight hours of straight whitening. "One night of that makes a difference," Dr. Nejad says. "If you’re doing that method, the average person is looking at 10 to 20 nights of whitening."

According to these dentists, if you prefer an over-the-counter product, like Crest Whitestrips, they're also very effective — it's just going to take a little longer to see results. "The strips work really well to remove stains on the surface, but just don't expect your teeth to immediately get 10 shades whiter after a handful of uses," says Dr. Nejad.

You'll also want to keep in mind that some whitening strips don't always extend to the very far back of your mouth, which could leave a few of your back teeth bare. If you have a wide smile, you might notice that your molars aren't as white as your canines. That's why all of the dentists we spoke to prefer custom trays that mold to the teeth, and then turn to whitening strips for maintenance throughout the year.

Whatever your preference and budget, we do know one thing: It's all better than ground pumice stone or urine.

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