Ask Dr S: How do whitening toothpastes work?


Most brands of adult toothpastes on store shelves boast whitening capabilities.  Many people wonder how these whitening toothpastes work, if they ruin your tooth enamel, and whether they work as well as bleaching trays.

To get to the root of the first question, we have to understand how teeth stain.  The outer layer of our teeth is called the enamel. Enamel is a porous material, meaning it can hold things in the little spaces or holes it contains.  When we consume things like coffee, tea, or wine, or smoke cigarettes, another layer – called a pellicle film – forms over top of the enamel later.   This film can sit on top of your teeth for years and over time the stains can seep into the enamel layer because it is porous.

Toothpaste is designed to work on the pellicle layer by abrasive action, like cleaning a dish with a scouring pad.  Whitening toothpastes are designed to work even harder on the pellicle layer using strong abrasives and chemicals to help remove stains.  The abrasives gently polish your teeth and the chemicals break down and dissolve stains.  Your toothpaste scratches away and dissolves some of the stained layer, making your teeth appear whiter.   A good cleaning by your hygienist every 6 months is also necessary to help remove the pellicle layer, clean your teeth, and polish your teeth in order to maintain the whiter appearance.

According to the FDA “whitening restores the natural color and bleaching whitens beyond the natural color”.  Whitening toothpastes restore your natural color, but they do not make a significant difference on whitening your enamel.

Bleaching treatments work differently than whitening toothpastes.  Bleaching uses chemicals like hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.  They breakdown particles lodged in the pores of the enamel to create a whiter look.  Custom trays for at-home use and in-office bleaching use stronger chemicals and are more effective than over-the-counter products.  Shamblott Family Dentistry offers patients both in office bleaching using Opalescence BOOST, and at home trays to help whiten your teeth.

Whitening toothpastes do work, but not to the same level as bleaching.  For more information about whitening options please contact us for an appointment.  We are happy to discuss your particular situation and make a recommendation based on your individual situation.