Flash those pearly whites: what works and how safe is teeth whitening

Helen Garston

These days it seems everyone wants the perfect Hollywood smile. Helen Garston looks at the safest and most effective ways to whiten your teeth.

Maybe it’s our constant exposure to American TV and actors with their oh-so pearly whites, or maybe it’s Simon’s Cowell’s perfect smile, but teeth whitening is becoming increasingly popular in this country. More than 100,000 Brits have tried some form of tooth whitening from toothpastes to laser treatments. But is the demand for beautiful ivories as safe and effective as the adverts and brochures claim?

Actually, it’s better news than you might think. According to the General Dental Council (GDC), the law has changed dramatically in the last five years which has made teeth whitening procedures much safer and easier to understand.

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In 2012, the GDC radically reduced the amount of the bleaching agent hydrogen peroxide a dentist is allowed to use to a maximum of 6 per cent. The stipulations were that:

  •  A dentist has first examined the patient to make sure there are no risks or any other concerns about their oral health.
  • The patient is over 18 years old.
  • For each cycle of use, first use is by a qualified dentist or a dental hygienist or therapist under the prescription or supervision of a dentist.

The law also states that anyone caught breaching these regulations can be struck off the GDC and jailed for up for six months.

So, what are the facts? What kind of treatment options are there?

1. In-surgery laser whitening method

This involves a cheek and liquid gum protector being used to protect the mouth and hydrogen peroxide painted onto your teeth. Then a laser is shone on the teeth to activate the chemical. This method can make teeth about three shades lighter.

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2. Home Kit whitening method

Your dentist will custom make a mouthguard for you to use at home. They will then give you syringes of a chemical called carbamide peroxide and tell you how to apply this to the mouthguard. You use this at home for the length of time instructed by your dentist, usually a few hours a day for up to 15 days.

How long does it last?

That depends on your diet: tea, coffee, smoking, red wine and curry are all bad news, but if you keep these to a minimum the treatment should last from six to 12 months. Often, the patient is offered a maintenance kit which they can use for seven to eight days every six months to give their teeth a whitening boost.

How much does it cost?

In surgery laser whitening: approx £395 Home kit (depending on the brand): approx £295-£395 5.

Could whitening cause long-term damage?

If you have the treatment at an approved dentist who follows GDA guidelines, there should be no long-term damage.

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Is treatment ok for everyone?

A full oral examination is given before treatment and if the patient shows any signs of gum disease such as gingivitis or periodontitis, treatment will not be offered.

Is treatment only offered privately or can you get it on the NHS?

It may be offered on the NHS if a tooth is discoloured due to disease or breakage but otherwise, only privately.

How safe are home kits?

GDC guidelines state shop bought kits can contain a maximum of 0.5 per cent hydrogen peroxide, but this is not enough to clean the stains from your teeth. The other more serious problem is that the moulds in these kits are not custom made so if they don’t fit properly the bleaching gel could drip onto your gums and cause irritation and ulceration.

Can anyone carry out teeth whitening?

No, only dentists registered with the GDC or hygienists under their supervision. Never go to a beauty salon as it is illegal as well as a risk to your oral health if any bleaching agent drips into your mouth.

Who can have it?

The GDC only sanctions treatment on people over the age of 18.

Dr Nina Bal, Cosmetic Dental Surgeon working in Kensington and Devonshire Place, says for best results patients should consider both laser treatment and home bleaching immediately afterwards, but using one or the other is effective too.

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“We always give our patients a full oral examination. Before 2012, everything was unregulated and we used up to 35 per cent hydrogen peroxide. We were very careful and protected the mouth but even then it was difficult to prevent the bleach from dripping,” Dr Bal says.

“Now the guidelines make things more simple. The results with 6 per cent hydrogen peroxide are obviously not as good so we combine the in-surgery laser whitening with the home kit which comprises a custom-made mould and two syringes of 14 to 16 per cent carbomide peroxide. This gives a very good result.”

She adds: “This treatment is safe and does not remove the enamel. The only discomfort you will feel is extra sensitivity because it temporarily causes the tubules in the dentine underneath the enamel to open up. This also causes more staining for a short time so our advice is to eat white food in the short term.”

To find out if a dentist is registered with the GDC you can check online or call 0207 167 6000.

Dentists on Harley Street Emrpoium who perform cosmetic dental work include:
Dr Krystyna Wilcznski and Dr Mark Hughes.