Teeth whitening

What To Do When Over-The-Counter Teeth Whitening Doesn’t Work

If teeth whitening has ever been on your radar, you’ve probably noticed that there are many types of tooth whitening products available in Canberra supermarkets and pharmacies. We call these “over-the-counter teeth whitening products”. They range from toothpastes to strips to gel pens to DIY whitening trays. It seems that many of us are attracted to the idea of having a convenient, easy to use and affordable method of whitening our teeth. It’s even better when it’s no further away than our local supermarket shelf.

You may also have noticed that over-the-counter whitening products usually make bold claims about their ability to make teeth “visibly whiter”. The consumer can’t help but believe that their teeth will go from “bleh” to Hollywood white in mere days. The messages on the packaging make whitening products appear to be a fantastic bargain, a foolproof method of quickly getting your pearly whites whiter, and all without a trip to the dentist.

Many Canberrans have been attracted by these promises and have given the products a go. After all, the possibility of having beautiful white teeth in five days for under fifty dollars is very, very tempting, particularly when you’ve got a special occasion coming up. There are many reasons to get teeth whitening treatment but you deserve the right and the best treatment.

Have You Been Happy With The Results Of Your Over-The-Counter Whitening?

If you’ve been persuaded to give over-the-counter whitening products a go, you may not have been delighted with the results.

The reason? Over-the-counter teeth whitening products may not actually be doing what they say they are doing.

Whitening Doesn’t Always Mean Whitening

When dentists speak of professional teeth whitening, they are talking about a process that involves a bleaching agent. This is usually either hydrogen peroxide (the same stuff as in household bleach) or carbamide peroxide (a related substance).

Professional whitening (bleaching) is usually done in a controlled environment on teeth that have recently been cleaned of plaque and tartar and foods that are stuck in the teeth gap. A pre-whitening professional clean removes most of the external (extrinsic) stains, and the whitening agent (bleach) bleaches the remaining extrinsic stains as well as any discolouration laying deep within the tooth enamel (intrinsic stains). This bleaching process falls under the classification of “Irreversible Dental Procedures”, so it’s not to be undertaken without careful consideration of the potential risks and downsides.

On the other hand, many of the over-the-counter products that claim the ability to whiten teeth don’t contain a bleach at all, so they can’t physically whiten the tooth enamel. Their “whitening” claim is based on the presence of abrasive particles within the paste: these are able to polish away (some of) the extrinsic stains.

In order to work, a whitening toothpaste needs to be thoroughly brushed onto the teeth, and the toothbrush bristles need to be able to guide the paste over the smooth surface of the teeth as well as into stained nooks and crannies on the enamel surface (which isn’t always possible).

There is some evidence to suggest that the ingredients in whitening toothpastes are so similar to their non-whitening counterparts that all that may set them apart is their (whitening-based) name. 


Over-The-Counter Whiteners Only Contain Low Amounts Of The Active Ingredient

Any product sold over the counter by Australian retailers is only allowed to contain a very low concentration of bleaching agents, significantly lower than the concentrations used in dental offices. This means that any gels or strips that you purchase from Australian stores simply don’t have the same whitening power as professionally-applied products.

Why Can’t Full-Strength Whiteners Be Bought Over-The-Counter?

1. Safety

Safety is the most important issue. Bad things can happen to your teeth, gums and stomach when you apply ta strong bleach to them. Chemical burns of the gums and increased tooth sensitivity are two of the most common risks. Chemical burns of the oesophagus and damage to the stomach is also possible, not to mention the risks to eyes and the skin of the fingers of anyone handling strong bleaching agents.

2. Choosing The Right Treatment For The Right Problem

The other problem is that people often misdiagnose their own health conditions and may end up self-prescribing treatments and medicaments that don’t work. It isn’t always apparent to a person WHY their teeth have become discoloured, and if they don’t know the why it can be very difficult to know HOW to safely and effectively make a change.

For example, teeth sometimes become yellow because the white enamel has eroded away, exposing more of the yellow-coloured dentine (an increasingly common occurrence in a world filled with acidic beverages). In such a case, whitening toothpaste will simply remove any topical stains on the enamel. A whitening (bleaching) gel could bleach the enamel, but as the enamel in such a case has already thinned out, the yellow dentine beneath will still show through. It would also most likely cause extreme tooth sensitivity when applied directly onto the naturally super-sensitive dentine.

If a person’s tooth is dark because it has a dead nerve or decay inside it, no amount of bleaching or surface polishing will ever improve their colour until the dead nerve or decay has been properly removed.

Teeth can even have a deeply-embedded discolouration because of the ingestion of antibiotics during childhood. A low concentration of whitening agent won’t make an iota of difference in these cases, and whitening toothpaste will just remove surface stains.

In each of the above cases, over-the-counter teeth whitening of any kind WON’T help and ISN’T the right treatment. In all cases, proper diagnosis of the problem is the critical first step towards a solution. While all of the teeth in the examples above could be made to look whiter by some mechanism, the process would likely take weeks, months or years and may not involve bleaching at all.

What Will Work?

If you’ve tried over-the-counter whitening products and they haven’t worked, what can you do?

The only course of action available is to visit your dentist to have your teeth discolouration properly diagnosed and then, if it’s possible to do so, professionally whitened. It’s important to know that not all teeth respond to whitening, even with professional-strength bleaches.

What Will A Dentist Do?

Be aware that your dentist won’t (or shouldn’t!) just jump into whitening without thoroughly checking your teeth. They’ll need to know why your teeth are discoloured and whether your teeth are good candidates for whitening. Some teeth aren’t, so other options like dental veneers might be needed to change their colour.

As we’ve mentioned, sometimes teeth can be made to look brighter just by having a professional clean and polish. If cavities, a diseased nerve or old leaking fillings have caused the teeth to look dull and discoloured, they may end up looking much better just with the appropriate dental treatment.

If your dentist is certain that professional whitening will enable you to achieve the look you are after, you’ll be in good hands. Your dentist will select the right concentration of whitening gel and will take all precautions necessary to make sure that the gel is applied safely and effectively, whether done in their office or in the comfort of your own home.

Teeth Whitening In Our Practice

Dr Goyal, a professional Garran dentist, enjoys the process of helping people to safely and effectively achieve whiter teeth, whether as a stand-alone treatment or as part of a more comprehensive smile makeover. Her approach begins with diagnosing the cause of discolouration so that the most effective treatment can be selected. Your safety, comfort and health are always her top priorities.

To commence your teeth whitening journey, call us on 6281 3562 to make an appointment to come in to talk about your situation.

If you want to brighten your smile for a special occasion, let us know the timeframe so that we can schedule your appointments to fit your timeframe.