Teeth whitening

More and more people are paying for brighter, whiter teeth. But does teeth whitening work and is it safe? Here are the answers to common questions about the treatment.

What is teeth whitening?

Teeth whitening involves bleaching your teeth to make them lighter. Teeth whitening can’t make your teeth brilliant white, but it can lighten the existing colour by several shades.

Who can perform teeth whitening?

Teeth whitening is a form of dentistry and should only be performed by a dentist or another regulated dental professional, such as a dental hygienist or dental therapist, on the prescription of a dentist.

Some beauty salons offer teeth whitening, but this is illegal if there's no dental professional present, and it may put your oral health at risk.

You can also buy DIY home teeth whitening kits but these may also carry risks.

What happens during teeth whitening at the dentist?

If you have teeth whitening you will need to make several visits to the dental surgery over a couple of months.

The dentist will take an impression of your teeth to make a mouthguard and will instruct you how to use it with a bleaching gel. Then, using your mouthguard at home, you regularly apply the gel for a specified period of time over two to four weeks. Some whitening gels can be left on for up to eight hours at a time, which shortens the treatment period to one week.

Another type of teeth whitening system that a dentist can provide is called laser whitening, which is also known as power whitening. This is where a bleaching product is painted onto your teeth and then a light or laser is shone on them to activate the whitening. Laser whitening takes about an hour.

Can any dentist whiten teeth?

Yes, provided they are registered with the General Dental Council. Registered dental therapists and dental hygienists can also carry out teeth whitening on the prescription of a dentist.

To find out if a dental professional is registered with the GDC you can check online or call 0207 167 6000.

What about home kits and beauty salons for teeth whitening?

You should only go to a registered dental professional for teeth whitening because whitening by people who aren't qualified, for example in beauty salons, is illegal. Home kits also carry risks.

What are the risks of home kits and salon teeth whitening?

Some home kits don’t contain enough of the whitening product to be effective. More generally, if a dental professional is not doing the whitening, the mouthguard provided may not fit properly so some of the bleaching gel may leak out onto your gums and into your mouth, causing blistering and sensitivity.

Where teeth whitening is carried out in beauty salons by staff without any training or dental qualifications it not only carries a risk to your oral health, but is also illegal.

Can you have your teeth whitened on the NHS?

You can only have your teeth whitened on the NHS if there's a medical reason for it. For example, this might be to lighten teeth that have discoloured because the nerve has died.

Otherwise, teeth whitening by a dentist or other dental professional can only be done privately because it’s considered to be a cosmetic treatment. Costs vary and, as a general rule, laser whitening is more expensive than professional bleaching.

Find out which dental treatments are available on the NHS.

How do you go about getting teeth whitening?

Your dentist will advise you whether whitening is right for you. It may be that teeth whitening isn’t suitable, for example if you have gum disease or crowns.

Find your nearest dentist here.

What questions should I ask the dentist before going ahead?

Don’t be afraid to ask simple questions about the types of whitening treatment available, what results you can expect and whether the work is guaranteed for a certain amount of time. Also, ask them what they consider to be the risks in your particular case, for example increasing sensitivity of the teeth.

Try to talk to other people who have had the same treatment or visit another dentist for a second opinion until you feel confident. Always ask for a written treatment plan and price estimate before going ahead.

Is teeth whitening permanent?

No, teeth whitening isn’t permanent. It can last from a few months to up to three years, but this varies from person to person. Generally, the whitening effect won’t last as long if you smoke or drink red wine, tea or coffee, which can all stain your teeth.

Will teeth whitening work on false teeth?

No. Teeth whitening won’t work on dentures, crowns, fillings or veneers.

What are the risks of teeth whitening?

No matter what treatment you use, there is a chance your gums can be sensitive to the chemicals used in teeth whitening, especially if you already have sensitive teeth. There’s also a chance of burns to gums and some of the whitening kits used at home can harm tooth enamel.

What if I’m not happy with the results?

If you’re concerned that teeth whitening by a dental professional has harmed you, contact the Dental Complaints Service on 0208 253 0800. This is an expert, free and independent service that can help if you have a complaint about private dental care.

If you think your teeth whitening has been carried out illegally (that is, by someone not qualified or registered to perform it) contact the General Dental Council on 0207 167 6000 or email illegalpractice@gdc-uk.org. 

Read more about how to look after your teeth.

Page last reviewed: 28/11/2013

Next review due: 28/11/2015


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The 5 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

User898888 said on 27 August 2014

After having a brace put on for a second time after an assault, my orthodontist (private) had recommended that I get my teeth whitened to help reduce the appearance of fluoride staining.

I went back to my usual dentist which also deals with private care as well as NHS charged me £280 which included taking moulds for top and bottom mouth guards, being shown how to apply the gels and a kit that would last for 1 week starting at a low concentration of acid to see how effective it was and how my teeth and gums felt. I was then given another kit with a stronger concentration.

My dentist had told me that if I was happy to go up in concentration I could, as it meant I would need to whiten my teeth less often, for a lesser period of time. At that time he didn't have anything stronger but suggested that if I went online and ordered the exact same brand online I would also be saving a lot of money.

Like someone has said already, the dentist would have charged £280 for each kit but I found the same ones for £40 and have had no problems whatsoever and my dentist does not have any concerns either.

If you've got common sense, then buying secondary kits online after you've been fitted with mouth guards from your dentist isn't an issue. But I definitely would not be using home kits to make your own moulds as I know from making mouth guards for sport can be tricky and not ideal. I've never heard of beauty salons whitening teeth and am horrified that they offer this. I highly doubt there's a trained dentist working in a beauty salon?

I went through 3 kits in all and after 3 years now need a new supply.
They're easily bought and easily stored in the fridge once opened.

I suggest you use sensitive toothpaste and mouthwash and after bleaching put toothpaste in the mouth guards and wear overnight after bleaching. My dentist recommended it for the initial sensitivity which only lasts a few days.

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Mike_English said on 03 April 2014

All it requires is the application of common sense.

I had laser whitening and followed up with a course of whitening gels under the supervision of my dentist. It cost me £580. I did suffer from some mild blistering when applying the gels twice a day but I simply reduced the frequency of application and was very happy with the end result.

He quoted me £280 for a course of whitening gels to be applied when my teeth needed it again - estimated to be in about one year's time. This I thought was excessive so I researched the internet and found a GB supplier offering what appeared to be an identical gel formulation (7.5%) with syringe kit for £40.

I tried the £40 kit and taking care not to cause blistering by too frequent application, and using the whitening tray supplied previously by my dentist, got exactly the same result as the original treatment, and saved a considerable sum of money.

I find it disappointing that dentists sell gel kits at exorbitant prices. I expect to pay for their expertise, but not to pay excessive prices for what is basically an off-the-shelf product.

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Greatblackhawk said on 12 July 2013

As always there is some midway ground on this issue.
On one hand it would make sense to consult with a suitably qualified dentist (first) to ensure that there aren't any potential complications if you wanted to go down the Teeth Whitening route.
What happens next is a matter of personal choice and not unimportantly cost.
Dentils can charge c.£750 for their specialists services which, for many, is a big ask.
I have been down this road and, in the short term, the results were satisfactory.
However the mouth guard was very uncomfortable and trying to sleep with it in place didn't give me the best night's rest.
There are other options but this is where quality on-line research can reap dividends.
However I totally agree that spurious channels like Beauty Salons should be avoided at all costs.

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Tippy_toes said on 04 May 2013

I can't believe how ignorant people can be.
Do you realise the damage that can be caused by bleaching from these Internet home kits? Lots of these kits may say they are approved but are in fact not. You should not be encouraging people to do there own research and give it a go themselves, the fact you say you have more knowledge then a dentist is ludicrous, did you complete 5 years at dental school? Did you complete a further year of vocational training under the guide of a qualified principle? Have you done continual proffesional development that all dental care practitioners have to do? No I don't think you have.
How do you know that your mouth is suitable for whitening? Did you google how to do a checkup as well?
Obviously you are so clued up that you can see if you have a cavity or a filling that needs replacing. You can see that your oral health is so good that you have no form of gum disease!
Bleaching your teeth yourself or by someone who doesn't know what they are doing can be detrimental to your oral health.
Yes it is expensive, but what is more important, saving a couple of quid or health?
I know I would rather have my health then a few extra pounds in my pocket and blisters on my gums.

And also the GDC are there to regulate dental practioners, not protect them. They protect patients against illigal practice. They are the ones who strike dental practitioners off the register and take them to court. They are the ones you go to as a patient to complain about your dentist.

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Vizz said on 04 December 2011

The General Dental Council does not exist for the benefit of patients. It exists to protect the monopoly of Dentists and dental treatments. There is little evidence they actually support patients and regulations are often in favour of dentists. They cannot look after both sides of the equation.

Teeth whitening in many developed countries are regulated but outside the control (and expense) of dentists. They is no evidence to suggest alternative and more liberal regulation harms patients.

Let the patient decide who they choose to receive beauty treatments from. By all means the dental monopoly should be able to provide its codes and qualifications but so should others. Competion breeds a better patient experience.

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