Now here’s something to smile about.

By Melanie Rud
February 05, 2020
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When you think about your smile, perhaps you think about which lipstick will make your lips look the fullest, or which anti-wrinkle serum can help mask those pesky smile lines. But at the end of the day, nothing impacts your smile quite as much as the appearance of your teeth. This also means that if they’re plagued with stains you may not have quite so much to smile about.  So, what causes tooth staining in the first place? 

The most obvious culprits are dark-colored foods and beverages: red wine, coffee, cola, tea, and even some less commonly mentioned ones, such as berries and tomato sauce. (A dentist once told us if it can stain a white T-shirt, it can stain your teeth.) “Residue from those foods and drinks attach to the tooth, causing what are known as extrinsic or surface stains,” says Kevin B. Sands, DDS, a celebrity dentist in Beverly Hills. Tobacco can also cause this type of staining—as if you needed yet another reason to not smoke—but even if you avoid all of those outside factors, there’s one culprit that’s unavoidable. “One of the top reasons for tooth discoloration is aging,” says Maryam Bakhtiyari, DDS, a board-certified dentist in California. On the bright side (pun intended), there are plenty of things you can do to score the pearly whites of your dreams. Ahead, dentists weigh in on five of the best ways to whiten teeth.

RELATED: You're Probably Brushing Your Teeth Wrong—Try These Dentist-Approved Tips for a Better Smile

1
Chewing Crunchy Fruits and Veggies

Yep, a simple snack can help. “Chewing on raw and crunchy fruits and vegetables can mechanically remove food and bacteria from your teeth and mouth, while scrubbing away surface stains to prevent the appearance of dull teeth,” says Marc Lowenberg, DDS, a celebrity cosmetic dentist at Lowenberg, Lituchy & Kantor in New York City. A few of his top picks? Apples, radishes, celery, kale, and carrots. While this isn’t going to give you dramatic whitening results, it’s a particularly effective way to keep stains from forming in the first place. Plus, there are no drawbacks, no side effects, and you can do it as often as you want, Dr. Lowenberg adds. The bottom line: You may want to consider noshing on an apple after your morning cup of coffee.

RELATED: 7 Clever Tricks for Keeping Your Teeth Free From Wine Stains, According to a Dentist

2
Whitening Toothpastes  

There’s no shortage of whitening toothpastes on the market, and all the dentists we spoke with agreed that they do work. The caveat? They’ll only remove surface stains, and not actually change the color of your tooth, notes Dr. Lowenberg. In other words, if your teeth are starting to look yellowish due to age, a whitening toothpaste may not help much. That being said, they’re inexpensive, super easy to use, and unlikely to cause the sensitivity that can come with some of the other, more intense whitening methods (more on those in a moment). Just make sure to use one every day in order to prevent stains from building up, advises Dr. Lowenberg.

Try the Colgate Optic White Renewal Toothpaste ($13.50 for two; amazon.com), which contains three percent hydrogen peroxide to help remove up to 10 years' worth of yellow stains. Or the cool new Hello Antiplaque + Whitening Toothpaste Tablets ($8.99; ulta.com) that you chew to activate. And while we’re on the subject of brushing, it’s important not to underestimate the impact of good dental hygiene in general. “A lot of staining residue tends to absorb into existing plaque so flossing and brushing daily will help keep stains at bay,” explains Dr. Sands.

3
Whitening Strips  

Perhaps the most popular at-home option, these stick-on strips contain hydrogen peroxide, the same bleaching agent used in many professional whitening treatments. “They contain a weaker percentage of hydrogen peroxide and don’t remain isolated on the teeth as well as in-office whitening, but they are the best of the at-home options,” says Dr. Lowenberg. “The bleach within the strips remains in contact with the tooth long enough to deliver noticeable results.” And if you’re looking for an effective yet affordable option, whitening strips can’t be beat.

Dr. Lowenberg also recommends pairing white strips with a whitening toothpaste to maximize at-home results. Keep in mind that you should follow the product directions exactly; overusing strips can just lead to sensitivity and damage to the tooth enamel, rather than whiter teeth. Most are meant to be used for a two-week long period, and if you really want to up the results, start this right after you’ve gone in for your annual dental exam and cleaning (the cleaner your teeth, the better they’ll work). Try: Crest Whitestrips ($42; walgreens.com).

4
Professional Take-Home Bleaching Kits  

In this case, your dentist will create custom-fit trays that are filled with a professional-strength whitening gel. This usually contains 10 to 22 percent carbamide peroxide—which turns into hydrogen peroxide—and these can take anywhere from two weeks to four months to be effective, says Dr. Bakhtiyari. It’s a mix of a professional bleaching (given the strength of the product) and an at-home option (since you don’t have to be in the office for anything). However, they work as the concentration of the active bleaching ingredient in these professional-grade options climbs, which means the likelihood of tooth sensitivity does too.

5
In-Office Bleaching  

With a super-high concentration hydrogen peroxide, a professional bleaching treatment is undoubtedly going to yield the most effective whitening results. “If you get a good result from over-the-counter products then you should get even better results from in-office, professional whitening,” points out Dr. Lowenberg. Along with a gel, a special UV light is used to increase the temperature and the breakdown of the peroxide, helping to lighten the teeth faster, adds Dr. Bakhtiyari. Yes, there’s an increased likelihood of tooth sensitivity, but this will usually dissipate in a day or two, notes Dr. Sands. And if you have sensitive gums, don’t worry, since a special shield is used to ensure the tissue isn’t affected by the bleaching agent. Just keep in mind that this is a no-go if you have a cavity or any kind of decay, and you also can’t bleach any kind of dental work, such as crowns or veneers. The bottom line: Talk through in-office bleaching with your dentist to determine if it’s a good option for you.

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