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Over-the-Counter Teeth Whitening: When Something So White Goes So Wrong

Over-the-Counter Teeth Whitening: When Something So White Goes So Wrong


The sales of over-the-counter teeth whitening products have skyrocketed over the past few years, reaching nearly $1.5 billion in 2006. These teeth-whitening treatments – available as strips, trays, mouthwashes, chewing gums, and toothpastes – have struck a chord with the public, creating an industry that was very recently obscure but is now thriving.

While the reasons for purchasing these at-home treatments may vary from person to person, sales revenues point to a single, undeniable conclusion: over-the-counter teeth whitening systems are becoming increasingly popular, a trend that shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.

Be Wary of Whitening

The affordable cost of at-home whitening treatments can, on occasion, carry a high price. While the majority of take-home treatments are generally considered to be safe and, if used properly, effective, they are still not without their risks and side effects.

Documented cases of risks and complications range from the temporary and minor to irreversible and severe. Many of these at-home treatment-related complications stem from a failure to follow the directions that come with the product. On the other hand, almost as many instances of side effects occur despite proper use.

"Stabbing," "Shooting," and "Knee-Buckling”

The most common problem stemming from at-home teeth whitening is increased tooth sensitivity. More than half of those who use whitening treatments experience some increased sensitivity, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

Teeth can become hypersensitive to variations in temperatures, as warm foods and beverages can feel exceedingly hot while cooler objects can feel incredibly cold. Even foods and drinks of a moderate temperature can cause extreme discomfort, making eating and drinking a painful experience.

In many cases, this increased tooth sensitivity is simply a mild annoyance that goes away within a few days. However, some people experience more severe sensitivity, often described as "stabbing," "shooting," "miserable," and even "knee-buckling."

More often than not, tooth sensitivity results from using whitening strips, trays, or gels for longer periods than directed. Some users incorrectly believe that they can expedite the whitening process simply by using the product for longer periods of time. Instead, as many have found, they're left with a painful reminder to always follow directions, especially when they concern the application of chemicals.

Though not as prevalent as increased teeth sensitivity, gum irritation is another side effect of at-home whitening treatments. Because certain over-the-counter teeth whitening products include whitening agents that hold a higher concentration of carbamide peroxide than the standard 10 percent, gum tissue can become easily irritated. The plastic trays that come with at-home treatments can also lead to irritation, as they are often left in overnight, rubbing up against and applying pressure to the gum tissue.

…and I'm a Whitening-holic

A particularly worrisome side effect of at-home teeth whitening is actually born out of its advantages. Because these products are easy to use, are readily available, and require no professional supervision, some consumers become obsessive, chronic bleachers.

These compulsive whiteners are often driven by unrealistic expectations. However, overbleaching can compromise the effects of whitening, often leading to blotchy, discolored results.

Some overuse their at-home whitening systems to the point that they severely damage their teeth and oral tissue. Dental pulp can die (necessitating root canal therapy), and enamel can wear away, causing teeth to take on a slightly eerie, translucent grayish-blue hue. Repairing such damage may require multiple, almost certainly costly trips to the dentist.

The At-Home Whitening Trend: Full Speed Ahead

Despite reports of agonizing teeth sensitivity, tissue irritation, and whitening addictions, over-the-counter teeth whitening solutions continue to fly off the shelves. When used properly, they can provide a convenient, affordable alternative to in-office whitening. Even so, the chance remains that even those who use at-home whitening systems as directed may suffer side effects; however, this is a chance an increasing number of people seem willing to take.

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