What the best teeth whiteners have

  • Brand recognition. For safety reasons, it's best to only purchase well-known brands that are compliant with FDA regulations.
  • Simple treatment method. Experts say whitening strips are generally the best and easiest to use over-the-counter (OTC) whiteners.
  • Average improvement. Professional teeth whiteners can whiten up to 10 shades, while OTC treatments generally whiten a noticeable one to three shades.
  • Minimal tooth sensitivity. Some whiteners are particularly hard on the teeth and gums, while others contain soothing and conditioning agents to minimize this effect.

Know before you go

Do you have a clean bill of dental health? It's important to have a complete oral exam before beginning any whitening treatment to make sure you are cavity-free and don't have any underlying problems like gum disease. Teeth whitening can aggravate these issues and cause further damage and pain.

Do you have extra-sensitive teeth and gums? Tell your dentist before beginning any professional treatment; your dentist can alter your treatment as necessary or something can be prescribed to help with the pain. It also helps to use a toothpaste for sensitive teeth for several weeks before, during and after treatment.

Are you prepared to follow through with the full course of treatment? Most whitening treatments take several days to weeks before desired results are achieved. Most OTC products take about two weeks to complete. In addition, once-a-day treatments take longer to produce results but generally cause less sensitivity issues. For the best results it's important to follow the guidelines provided -- including avoiding stain-causing foods while undergoing treatment.

Are you realistic about the results you desire? Results vary from one person to the next and often are based on the starting condition of your teeth. Experts say many people have unrealistic expectations and want their teeth to look whiter than what is natural. This often leads to over-whitening, which can cause excessive sensitivity and a translucent bluish hue on teeth.

How important are your vices? Teeth-whitening results last longest if you avoid stain-causing foods and beverages such as coffee, tea and berries -- as well as cigarettes and tobacco products.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Prices vary widely for teeth whitening by retailer and product. OTC products can range from just $15 to $200, while professional in-office whitening can cost up to $1,000. It's important to keep in mind, however, that OTC products don't deliver long-term results the way in-office whitening does, so a one-time professional procedure may be more economical in the long run. At-home professional whitening requires the initial upfront costs of getting custom trays made, but refills for gel are typically inexpensive, especially when ordered online rather than through a dentist. We found Opalescent PF and NiteWhite ACP syringe packs in the $20 to $50 range available on Amazon.com.

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