Home versus professional teeth whitening
It used to be that you had no choice: if you wanted to brighten your smile you had to turn to your dentist for an often pricey, and sometimes painful, whitening procedure. Having your teeth professionally whitened is still the most effective -- and fastest -- route to much whiter teeth, but it can darken your budget quite a bit.
Professional teeth whitening kits meant for home use have a system with custom-fitted trays and gels that have a high concentration of bleaching solution. These can cost around $100 and up, depending upon the brand, and are only available through your dental professional. Other treatments, which are in-house procedures that may include lights or lasers, can run as high as $300 or even more, depending upon the procedure and your location.
The big drawback with professional teeth whitening in the early days was that it could be quite painful if you have sensitive teeth. Current treatments can eliminate a lot of that sensitivity and its painful aftereffects, so if tooth sensitivity is an issue for you, a professional treatment may be your best bet.
Regardless, always consult with your dental professional before undergoing any teeth whitening treatment -- even if it's over-the-counter -- to be sure there are no contraindications. Also, keep in mind that teeth whitening is a cosmetic procedure, so it isn't usually covered by insurance.
Home teeth whitening is effective and affordable
Although whitening your teeth at home won't give you the instantaneous, blinding white choppers that a professional treatment will, it does a pretty good job at a fraction of the cost. These are the main types of home teeth whitening treatments:
Teeth whitening strips are strips are made of flexible plastic, infused with gel that you lay over your teeth. Many experts say these are the best choice for most people, as they're relatively affordable, very safe, do a good job in removing stains and brightening teeth, and are easy to use. Whitening strips can be problematic for those with very sensitive teeth, but they actually get better reviews overall from those who can't handle stronger treatments, such as tray/gel systems. Whitening strips are meant to be used one or twice a day for 14 to 20 days, depending upon the product.
Whitening toothpaste won't give you results as dramatic as whitening strips, but if you just want gradual whitening, or want to maintain your whitened teeth, they're a good choice for everyday use. These specialty toothpastes are meant to be used regularly, just as you would any toothpaste, one or twice per day.
Teeth whitening kits include gels, trays and sometimes other items, such as whitening pens, to give you better coverage than strips can. You fill the trays with the gel, fit them on your teeth, and wear them for a subscribed period of time every day for a specific number of days, depending upon the kit. Gel/tray systems are also the type used in speed whitening products, as they provide better coverage and more concentrated ingredients.
Teeth whitening gels are gels only that you "paint" on your teeth using a swab, toothbrush or any small brush. They claim to whiten quickly and to lighten up dark stains better than other types of whitening products. Many can also be used with trays, but you may have to purchase the tray separately. Gels are the least common and least popular of the available teeth whiteners, but some like them because they can use them virtually anywhere.
A word about whitening ingredients. We wanted to include the percentage of whitening ingredient in each of the teeth whitening products that we recommend, but it's not easy to ascertain that number because the manufacturers do not include those specifics on their websites. In each case, we reached out to the manufacturer to verify ingredient percentages, with mixed results. Some makers were glad to share percentages, others politely declined, saying that was considered proprietary information. There are plenty of websites devoted to teeth whitening that claim to know the exact breakdown, but, since there's no way to verify their information, we did not accept those as reliable. However, experts generally agree that home teeth whitening products have up to 10 percent hydrogen peroxide, while professionally applied tooth whitening treatments can contain from 25 to 40 percent. As a result, we would suggest being skeptical if you read anything not directly attributable to the manufacturer that claims that an over-the-counter whitening product contains more than 10 percent whitening agent.
How we found the best teeth whiteners
Teeth whitening is a popular and rather inexpensive procedure, and teeth whitening products are popular in "best of" roundups. Sometimes these recommendations include either testing or a dental professional's recommendation, but other recommendations are just based on the product's reputation. What's even more helpful are user reviews, with hundreds or even thousands of consumers weighing in on a given teeth whitener's efficacy, ease of use, and any side effects. We used all of these resources to find the best teeth whiteners to give you a brighter smile in an instant, or as gradually as you need.