Tooth Whitening: Is It Worth the Cost?

Are you considering a tooth whitening procedure? Before spending the money, do your homework.

In recent years, your dentist may have started pitching tooth whitening procedures (often using a nifty laser device) as a means of brightening your smile. And of course, there are all those handy over-the-counter “brightening strips” and systems you can buy at the corner drugstore.

So: if you’d like to have the gleaming teeth of a TV celebrity, which method should you choose? Or better yet, should you choose any method at all? Let’s take a look at a few important variables.

The first thing to ask yourself is, “Why are my teeth discolored in the first place?”

Extrinsic Stains

Extrinsic stains are those caused by eternal factors that simply discolor the surfaces of your teeth, rather than impacting their internal structure. Basically, bits of pigmentation from the stuff you eat and drink lodge in microscopic crevices in the enamel of your teeth, resulting in a yellowish tint.

These stains can be caused by drinking wines, coffee, tea, or cola; tobacco use (smoked or smokeless); and the consumption of strongly pigmented foods like berries (especially the cran, black, and blue varieties) and curry. Soy and Worcestershire sauces can also stain your teeth.

Intrinsic Stains

Intrinsic stains result from a change in a tooth’s physical or molecular structure. Often, the discoloration occurs because the surface enamel has worn away in part or in whole, exposing the underlying dentin.

Such stains are permanent, and may come about due to aging, genetics, overexposure to fluoride or tetracycline at a young age, tooth decay, plain old poor oral hygiene, or degraded fillings.

The Good News…

Generally, extrinsic stains respond well to whitening treatments, whether you’re talking those tooth-brightening strips and specialty toothpastes, or even the harsher peroxide treatments that you can also try. All you’re doing is scrubbing off the stain, though admittedly some are more stubborn than others.

You can also resort to expensive dental treatments, with super-strong peroxide solutions and lasers, if you want to spend beaucoup bucks. But if you’ve determined your stains are extrinsic and you’re as stingy as I, give the OTC methods the good old college try before you spend your vacation fund.

…and the Bad

Intrinsic stains don’t respond well to whiteners, since the discoloration is “in the bone,” so to speak. It’s possible that some level of bleaching (which is all that dental whitening really is) will help; but consult with your dentist before wasting your time and money on such procedures.

The truth is, you may have to end up spending your money on veneers, bondings, or other methods of fixing your teeth… or just learn to grin and bear it. Despite the hype, tooth whitening isn’t a cure-all for your smile.