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In an ideal world, brushing your teeth routinely would be enough to keep your set of pearly whites, well, pearly and white between routine dentist appointments. But alas, for many of us (particularly those of us with a serious coffee habit), that's just not the case. We feel moved to hit up the local drugstore for whitening products to freshen up our smiles — perhaps without giving much thought to what those products actually are and how they work.
"Tooth enamel [is] a crystal," Matthew Messina, an Ohio-based dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association (ADA), says. "If you were to look at tooth enamel under a really powerful microscope, [the structure] kind of looks like chicken wire" (or wire mesh). He explains that removing stains within the matrix of the tooth enamel is like getting out dirt stuck in chicken wire: "So what happens in whitening is we want to... open the matrix and bubble out that color, the stain, and then close it back up."
That's where peroxide comes in. Messina says peroxide causes that bubbling to occur, so the active ingredient in whitening kits you buy will be hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide (a diluted version of hydrogen peroxide). "Carbamide peroxide is used because it's a comparatively stable compound," Neil Hadaegh, a cosmetic and restorative dentist in Beverly Hills, California says. "This helps the manufacturer to ensure product quality and consistency at the consumer’s end." Messina notes that aside from the peroxide, over-the-counter whitening products usually contain some additional ingredients to improve the taste.
Peroxide is the main active ingredient in the products dentists use to do professional whitening in their offices, too. The only difference is the concentration. "If we're doing something where we can mask off the gum tissue...where the gum tissues are protected, we can use a stronger whitening agent...because it’s only touching the teeth," Messina says. "Something you're using over-the-counter has the potential to touch the gum tissues or be swallowed. So, we have to use a much lower strength of the active ingredient because...it might burn [the patient's] gum tissues."
Professionals, on the other hand, "can take all the necessary precautions to make sure the gum tissue is safe and protected and the whitening agent is only getting on the tooth enamel that we want whiter."
Ultimately, Messina says that all over-the-counter, peroxide-based whiteners will deliver comparable results as long as you follow the manufacturer's instructions for use. One ingredient to steer clear of? Hydrated silica. Hadaegh says that the substance is "made from a crystallized compound found in quartz and sand [and] can damage tooth enamel and gum tissue."
Aside from that, Giri Palani, a dentist in Beverly Hills and Palos Verdes, California says the most important thing is to look for when you're shopping is ease of use. "Also, [you] want to make sure that the product you buy has a good shelf life and you store the product properly ([in] the refrigerator will last longer)," he says.
Once you have a kit, Messina says you can use it for seven to 10 days to start, and then once every other week or so for maintenance. Before you do so, though, consider taking a trip to the dentist for your standard teeth cleaning and to consult on your at-home whitening plans.
"Tooth whitening is something that should only be done in a healthy mouth situation," he says. "If somebody has cavities or periodontal disease, or some other reason why their teeth aren’t white, whitening is not the right choice for them. That's why it's always good to have a thorough examination done by your dentist before starting on a whitening program."
Not to mention, if you do the whitening right after having your teeth cleaned at the dentist, Messina says, you'll be whitening your tooth enamel itself rather than the tartar or build-up on top of it. Regardless, he says, involving your dentist in the discussion will help you ensure you're taking the right path.
Once you have that conversation, consider one of these over-the-counter kits.
1. SNOW® At-Home Teeth Whitening All-in-One Kit
Did you know a Snow® product is sold every 47 seconds? When it comes to teeth whitening, the Snow® At-Home Teeth Whitening All-in-One Kit is second to none—and a perfect gift for the holiday season. One of the brand’s most advanced formulas delivers a professional-level whitening experience that’s enamel-safe for those with sensitive teeth and gums. No prescription or dental visit required—9 minutes is all it takes.
$149 (Shop Now)
2. Crest 3D White Whitestrips Professional Effects Teeth Whitening Kit
There's no doubt that Crest Whitestrips are one of the most recognizable over-the-counter teeth whitening systems available. It seems almost as if they've been around forever — and professionals still love them. The hydrogen peroxide in the strips eliminates up to 14 years of stains, according to the brand.
"Over the counter, I recommend Crest 3D White Whitestrips," Hadaegh says of the product that took our 2018 Allure Best of Beauty Award for best tooth whitener of the year. "A lot of my patients who naturally have whiter teeth or slightly discolored teeth are happy with the results."
Palani is also a big advocate of whitening strips. "I have had great results with the strips," he says. "When people use strips properly, they can get very close to professional whitening."
$57 for 44 strips (Shop Now)
3. Plus White 5 Minute Dental Whitening Kit
When it comes to tray options, Lana Rozenberg, a New-York-City-based cosmetic dentist, likes Plus White's 5 Minute system. They cause "very little [tooth] sensitivity, [and they're] less expensive than the strips but a bit easier, due to the trays," she says.
$8 (Shop Now)
4. Dr. Collins All White 22 Percent Bleaching System
"The strips or the trays are more effective than the pens because of the prolonged contact of the gel to the tooth," Rozenberg says. But, Rozenberg notes, over-the-counter trays are one-size-fits-all, and the looser ones could allow more gel to seep out.
A custom-fit, take-home tray from your dentist is the most ideal scenario, but you can get these "boil-n-bite" trays, which you can (at least somewhat) mold to your teeth, from drugstores. Just be sure to follow all instructions, and let the tray cool enough that you don't burn yourself when putting it in your mouth.
$23 for four trays (Shop Now)
5. Walgreens Xtreme Whitening Wraps
Messina agrees that prolonged contact of whitener with teeth is key. "What we have to do is keep the whitening agent on the teeth," he says. "So strips or trays have a better ability to keep the whitening agent against the teeth [than other products like pens] because [the whitening agent is] only effective as long as it stays there and saliva doesn’t wash [it] off."
If you're having trouble finding trays that fit your mouth well, these more fitted wraps from Walgreens could do the trick.
$14 for 28 wraps (Shop Now)
6. AuraGlow Teeth Whitening Kit
New York City-based cosmetic dentist, Pia Lieb, waxes poetic about the AuraGlow Teeth Whitening Kit, as it's highly effective and also more affordable than other products on the market. "This whitening solution comes with trays and a LED light to comfortably whiten both your top and bottom teeth," she says. "It also features 35 percent carbamide peroxide (most dental offices use a 40 percent peroxide formula), which is a testament to the great results this product produces."
$49 (Shop Now)
7. Crest 3D White Whitestrips 1-Hour Express Teeth Whitening Kit
If you want to land a whiter smile in an hour or less, then this kit from Crest is a must-try. Arizona-based dentist Brian Harris highly recommends it. "For those who want really fast results, these are great as they're applied once a day for a week and activated with a blue light during each application that works overtime to give you a whiter smile," he tells Allure.
$39 for 14 strips (Shop Now)
8. Colgate Optic White At-Home Teeth Whitening Kit
Both Lieb and Harris are fans of Colgate's Optic White At-Home Teeth Whitening Kit, which combines LED whitening light with blue light technology to activate the stain-removing hydrogen peroxide gel that's applied to the teeth via its rechargeable tray.
After using it for just 10 minutes a day for 10 days, your smile should look significantly whiter. It's also enamel-safe and was specifically designed to whiten teeth without causing sensitivity.
$129 (Shop Now)
There you have it — happy whitening.
Now check out more on teeth whitening:
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Originally Appeared on Allure