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Does whitening toothpaste work?

Image of a toothpaste tube spelling out a question mark with toothpaste

More than 42% of adults under 35 years of age have their teeth whitened. We talk to the experts to find out what actually works

The quest for the perfect smile is more than a bid to look good on Instagram. The reality is, many of us are unhappy with our smile and many will go as far as to say that it impacts their mental wellbeing.

An article in the journal Dental Nursing revealed that embarrassment at their teeth is causing thousands of people to shy away from the spotlight – or even relationships. Reporting the findings of a 2023 survey, the journal states that 77% of those interviewed wanted to change their smile, and one in four respondents said they hated their smile.

Teeth whitening is seen as a relatively easy and cost-effective way of transforming teeth. It comes as no surprise then that reports that it is the most popular cosmetic treatment in the UK.

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What does whitening toothpaste claim to do?

There are a vast array of whitening toothpastes on the market, but are they effective? Dr Celeste Aouilk-Jaiyeola is a dentist, facial aesthetician and TedX speaker based in London. She says that there isn’t a straight answer. “My response is yes and no. Whitening toothpastes are generally abrasive. They have small particles that can help to remove surface stains from, for example, tea and coffee drinking, and make the teeth appear whiter. They can also help with upkeep after professional whitening.”

Whitening toothpastes contain various buffing compounds, including baking soda or silica, which rub away surface stains from foods and drinks we consume. Used in conjunction with an effective and clean electric toothbrush, these compounds also rub away plaque and tartar.

What causes discolouration of teeth?

Some foods contain chromogens, which are chemical compounds that give them a strong colour. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are all on this list. Other foods and drinks contain tannin, which stains our teeth brown. The culprits include beer, wine, tea, fruit juices, cider, leafy green vegetables and nuts. Bupa states: “In general, if something could stain your clothes or your tongue, the chances are it’s also going to stain your teeth.” Acidic foods can wear down our tooth enamel, making them more liable to staining.

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What if you have sensitive teeth?

The abrasive nature of whitening toothpaste means it can increase the pain if you already suffer from sensitive teeth. Dr Celeste advises: “It is best to avoid those containing charcoal and baking soda as they are both very abrasive and can lead to increased sensitivity, enamel erosion and gum irritation.” There are whitening toothpastes on the market that offer sensitivity relief, she adds.

Should toothpaste offer benefits beyond whitening?

Dr Celeste adds that your toothpaste should also contain a minimum of 1,450ppm of the naturally occurring mineral fluoride. Most standard toothpastes contain fluoride, but children’s toothpastes contain a lower amount.

Close up image of a toothbrush with toothpaste on it in front of a smiling mouth

Danica Payne is a dental nurse, facial aesthetic clinician and owner of a medispa in Southampton with a decade of experience. She adds: “Toothpastes that do not contain fluoride will simply help aid bad breath though they will reduce the build-up of stains if abrasive. Fluoride helps to prevent the demineralisation of enamel, which allows decay. By promoting the remineralisation of the enamel, the likelihood of needing fillings is reduced.” However, she is adamant that, with a £5 to £50 whitening toothpaste, patients won’t see a huge difference in the actual whiteness of the teeth.

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What’s the best way to whiten teeth?

What whitening toothpastes in the UK do not include is a bleaching agent, like carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide, as these cannot be sold beyond a certain strength over the counter – and as such, Dr Celeste states, “they won’t give a ‘Hollywood white’ smile”. She continues: “The only way to do this is by professional whitening by a [cosmetic] dentist.”

Payne agrees: “It’s similar to hair dye. You can buy an over-the-counter box dye that will achieve some results, but it will never be to the standard of a hairdresser.” She continues: “If you want to whiten teeth, tooth whitening toothpaste will not be the solution. The dentine underneath the enamel is yellow in colour. Professional tooth whitening bleaches the dentine to a whiter shade without harm, giving you a whiter smile. No toothpaste can do this.”

Instead, both professionals recommend seeking the skills of a professional. Payne states that there will be a larger upfront cost “but you will see a result”. Dr Celeste adds that a dental professional will also be able to tailor the results and “they can ensure that it is a safe and effective process, as well as giving you the best results that last longer.” Once you have the results you want, whitening toothpaste and a decent toothbrush will help maintain your teeth whiteness, by keeping stains at bay.

The survey detailed by Dental Nursing revealed that 64% of respondents were “too self-conscious to properly smile when taking pictures” because their teeth were impacting their confidence in front of the camera. More than half of those who responded also stated that “the condition of their smile has impacted their personal relationships or dating life”. How much you want to spend on whitening your teeth comes down to how confident you feel with your smile – and it seems many of us simply aren’t.

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