How do toothwhiteners work?

Teeth can become stained primarily by food and drink, such as coffee, red wine, tea and tobacco. However, the “million-dollar smile” is more readily available today than it ever has been, thanks to the various home-kits designed to whiten teeth.

Toothwhiteners available in the shops work on the same principle as those used by dentists in their clinics. Hydrogen peroxide, the main component of most common bleaches, is used to bleach the enamel of the teeth, and remove the stains. The concentration of hydrogen peroxide is strictly limited to avoid damage to the gums.

Are there different ways to whiten teeth?

As well as taking a trip to the dentist, there are a range of products to help you whiten your teeth at home.

Whitening toothpastes

The primary mode of action of many teeth whitening toothpastes is abrasion. The formulation of the typical whitening toothpaste will be such that it includes minute, mildly abrasive particles (usually aluminum oxide, dicalcium phosphate dihydrate, hydrated silicas or calcium carbonate). The scrubbing motion of the bristles of a toothbrush in combination with the presence of these small particles creates an abrasive action that can have an effect where it scours debris off the surface of teeth. Some toothpastes designed for smokers are more abrasive than ordinary family toothpastes.

The formulations of some teethwhitening toothpastes include peroxide compounds, but at very low levels.

Home toothwhitening kits

Home toothwhitening kits include a strip or mouth-guard which is filled with a hydrogen peroxide gel, and applied to the teeth. This is usually worn for several hours a day, for up to 15 days. The oxidising agent in the gel penetrates the porous crystalline enamel structure of the tooth and oxidises the stain deposits, thus whitening the tooth.

The concentration of hydrogen peroxide in such kits must not exceed 0.1% under current EU legislation, and so it would be a relatively slow process.

Are toothwhiteners safe?

The EU’s policy on the availability of home teethwhitening products is much more stringent than in other parts of the world, where it is possible to purchase products with a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide.

Although products containing up to 6.0% hydrogen peroxide have been considered safe for home use, at present the law (the Cosmetics Regulation) does not allow the level of hydrogen peroxide to exceed 0.1%. The limit on peroxide levels in home use products in Europe may be raised in future years.

Other bleaching agents are used in some home use toothwhitening kits.

In all cases it is important to follow the manufacturers’ instructions for use carefully to avoid irritation of the mucous membranes of the lips, cheeks and gums. Even with careful use, a small minority of people do notice a temporary tooth sensitivity to hot and cold after toothwhitening.

New innovations

Whilst the restrictions on hydrogen peroxide-based toothwhitening products sold to consumers in Europe may relax in future years, other means of toothwhitening are being explored, most recently the concept of bleaching teeth using light technology.

Where can I find out more?

For more information on dental hygiene, visit the British Dental Association.

The National Hairdressers’ Federation (NHF) has a factsheet providing helpful information and advice, while reminding hairdressers and beauty therapists that it is illegal for tooth whitening to be carried out within hair or beauty salons.

Read more about professional tooth whitening and who can legally carry out tooth whitening from The Tooth Whitening Information Group

Further information on toothwhitening products is also available from the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP).

If you want to find out about different types of ingredients in your products, visit what's in my cosmetic?