your guide to bright white teeth

Your Guide to Bright, White Teeth

The practice of teeth whitening began around 4,000 years ago with the ancient Egyptians, who created a whitening paste using ground pumice stone mixed in wine vinegar. White teeth were a mark of beauty and a sign of wealth.

  • Ancient Romans whitened their teeth using urine (yes, you read that correctly). The ammonia in the urine was the bleaching agent.

  • During the 17th century, people relied on their barbers for the care of hair and teeth. The barber would file down the teeth and apply an acid to whiten them. While the practice made teeth whiter, it eroded tooth enamel and led to decay.

  • The effects of fluoride were discovered in the early 19th century, when dentists realized that patients exposed to the proper amount of the element in food and water had cavity-free teeth. However, it also was discovered that too much fluoride could cause discolored teeth.
While our teeth-whitening techniques have become more advanced and safer in 2012, here we are still yearning for a blinding smile. But be careful says Virtua’s chief of general dentistry George Barth, DMD, “It’s possible to bleach your teeth too much. If you overuse any tooth whitener, your teeth will start to take on an opalescent grey color as the dentin (the layer below the enamel) begins to show through.” The key to teeth whitening is to have a realistic expectation.

To start, schedule an evaluation with your dentist. “The most crucial step in the process is having your dentist chart the color of your teeth with a shade guide to monitor where you start before bleaching and where you end up after bleaching. During the consultation, your dentist also will address surface stains from coffee, tea, smoking, and tartar, which should be removed before bleaching can begin. Cold sensitivity issues, which can increase with some bleaching techniques, should also be discussed.” says Dr. Barth.

Influenced by TV and magazine images, teens as young as 13 are requesting teeth whitening, but the American Dental Association (ADA) does not recommended it for children under age 16. “The shade guide is the best way to show teens that their teeth are already as white as can be,” says Dr. Barth. 

“Unlike hair coloring, this is not a process that should be done over and over again every few weeks. You really only need to whiten your teeth every three to five years,” notes Dr. Barth. And according to the ADA, women who are pregnant or nursing should not bleach their teeth at all. 

So you may choose to spend some of this year’s tax refund at the dentist having your teeth whitened, or go for a more modest result with an over-the-counter whitening kit to achieve that coveted smile. But either way, remember, it has taken 4,000 years to get this process right, so don’t overdo it.   

Updated June 6, 2016

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