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Want whiter teeth? Don't head to your local pharmacy

Rupert-Taylor Price

A pearly white smile isn’t always easy to come by. While some blame genetics, coffee and tea, teeth yellowing is a natural part of aging. Teeth whitening is a fairly new obsession, but with gels, lights, pastes and strips, the trend continues to pick up speed.

This week on “Take Care,” we speak to Dr. Mark Burhenne about the different kinds of whitening products available and if they’re effective or even safe. Burhenne is a practicing dentist of over 30 years and creator of the popular website “Ask the Dentist."

As we age, so do our teeth.

“One of the manifestations of that is the yellowing of the internal structure of the tooth,” Burhenne says.

Consumption of coffee and tea, as well as smoking, can contribute to the yellowing of teeth. Mouth breathing (and having less saliva) also contributes to less-than-white teeth.

A happy accident

The process of teeth whitening still isn’t completely understood and was actually discovered by accident.

“Decades ago, dentists were recommending a gel with hydrogen peroxide in it for coldsores,” Burhenne says. “The gel intermittently would get on the tooth and we noticed it was whitening the tooth.”

The best method, according to Burhenne is a method of holding a hydrogen peroxide gel up against the teeth for a period of time. The key here is to avoid the gums, as exposure to the whitening agent can cause damage to the gums, including receding gum lines, Burhenne says.

In the office

Professional whitening, under the supervision of your dentist, involves the whitening gel and individually-made trays for your teeth, in most cases.

A more powerful agent, with around 30 percent hydrogen peroxide, can also be used to whiten teeth. It gets painted on to the teeth at the office.

“And the gums are protected with rubber dams and held back in place with cotton rolls. And then that’s where you get this little LED light that sometimes gets introduced, which, by the way, does not work,” Burhenne says. “There are no studies that indicate that it is definitely an accelerator in terms of accelerating the process of whitening.”

At home

In most cases, the white strips don’t work that well.

“Nowhere near as well as a tray that’s intimately holding gel up against the tooth for a period of time,” Berhenne says.

In regards to toothpastes, they just don’t work. Berhenne says no toothpaste can whiten your teeth.

“They can remove staining, perhaps, through abrasion -- an abrasive toothpaste. And that will give you the idea that you’ve whitened your teeth but it’s not an intrinsic color change.”

And anything that holds a whitening gel against your gum line is unsafe.

“This is the thin part of the gum. This is where the gum tapers and becomes very thin,” Berhenne says. “And it is susceptible to chemical exposure.”

One thing you could try, according to our guest, is activated charcoal with water or coconut oil, painted on.