The dark side of whitening

March 10, 1998|By Boston Globe

Tooth whitening, a popular option for people whose teeth have become dingy from age or medications, has become big business for dentists, who often charge hundreds. To avoid those costs, which are not covered by insurance, many people turn instead to do-it-yourself tooth bleaching -- to dentists' dismay.

The American Dental Association has come out against all home whitening except under a dentist's supervision because the bleaching agents can be corrosive to the gums.

The Mayo Clinic similarly advises against over-the-counter whitening kits, noting that the one-size-fits-all trays used to hold the bleaching solution can fit poorly, allowing the bleaching agent to leak out, irritating gums and other soft tissues. Like whitening at the dentist's, home bleaching can also leave teeth sensitive to hot and cold, adds Mayo dentist Ned Van Roekel.

Home kits, which cost $20 or so, contain a 10 percent solution of carbamide peroxide gel (equivalent to a 3 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide). The bleaching kits used in dental offices are 30 percent hydrogen peroxide or stronger.

In some cases, dentists will make a customized tray to hold the bleaching agent for home use. And they protect the gums with surgical wax or dental dams.

They may also use heat sources, including lasers, to activate the bleach.

Even dentists who support it say there is only a cosmetic, not a medical, justification for bleaching. So far, there's no evidence that it damages teeth, but most studies have lasted less than 10 years.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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