Illustration by Daria Krikunova

Smooth, white teeth greet us from almost every billboard we see, on highways and metro stations alike. “Pearly whites” are usually taken as synonymous with top-notch oral health, even if they technically aren’t.

This is why teeth whitening treatments are a common way to round-up more extensive cavity or orthodontic treatments, or even to prepare for a major life event. However, enlisting a professional dentist to whiten your teeth can be very expensive, and few insurance plans cover it.

Naturally, this has led the markets to respond with an ever wider-variety of at-home or over-the-counter alternatives. But are they a good investment? And more importantly, are they safe?

How whitening products really work?

Your teeth are covered by a relatively thin layer of enamel, which is a hard, protective shell made mostly from calcium and phosphate (1). Most often, enamel starts as white, but life, long use, and dietary choices can stain the top of this crystallized calcium, turning it yellowish or even brown. Plaque and bacterial overgrowth can also soften/erode or damage your enamel, creating dark or discoloured spots.

If you’re interested in returning to brighter times, you can choose between two main routes: professional whitening treatments performed by a dentist, or over-the-counter alternatives that you can use at home. The latter include DIY remedies, whitening toothpaste and natural remedies, and rely mostly on the same principle: they scrub off the outer layer of enamel, to get rid of the stained sections and uncover a fresher-looking section (2).

At its thickest, your enamel layer is only 2.5 mm wide. Using whitening treatments excessively could scrub off too much, and leave the enamel thin and fragile or even expose the underlying dentin making the tooth vulnerable and sensitive.

We would recommend the following products for Whitening that are safe:

At-home teeth whitening

If you are dead-set on trying to whiten your teeth at home, you have quite the variety of methods and active ingredients at your disposal. The fastest, most reliable, and safest results are generally reserved for professional treatments. On the other hand, any at-home solutions will require you to compromise between a slow and steady approach and an overly aggressive one that could cause lasting damage to your enamel.

Here are some more products that we would


Natural remedies – are they a good bet?

Many natural teeth whitening methods use common household ingredients, such as baking soda or apple cider vinegar. For the most part, they offer pretty modest results and it may take up to six weeks for you to notice any changes.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that they are completely risk-free. Apple cider vinegar does have a tiny bleaching effect, but its high acidity can damage your gums and erode your enamel (3). Baking soda scrubs are actually harsher than commercial whitening toothpaste, and so they are more likely to damage your teeth than approved remedies.

Your local pharmacy options

A safer route is to use special whitening toothpaste or mouthwashes. These usually have added ingredients. Most often, these are either small abrasive particles that will remove the top discolored layer of enamel, or baking soda to slowly lighten it.

They are only slightly more expensive than regular toothpaste and can be easily integrated into your daily oral hygiene routine. Don’t expect any radical changes, however: it can take up to three weeks for your teeth to lighten up by a full shade (4).

Teeth whitening gels and strips

Over the past years, many teeth whitening gels, strips, and trays have appeared at normal drugstores, promising rapid whitening for a special occasion. Many of these products advertise themselves as using the same active ingredients as professional whitening treatments do, such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.

These are pretty strong bleaching agents that can easily damage your gums. Most European countries only allow very tiny concentrations of hydrogen and carbamide peroxide on over-the-counter products – which tend to be too low to be truly effective (5).

Charcoal mouthwash - playing with fire

Charcoal products are now a popular sight on beauty aisles. Many new organic labels advertise its “detoxifying” properties as part of their facial soaps and masks. This has now expanded onto the dental care aisle: charcoal-based mouthwash often markets themselves as natural alternatives to lighten teeth, combat poor breath and prevent cavities.

Unfortunately, the existing evidence doesn’t always agree with the labels. A review study published this year showed that charcoal products don’t really offer noticeable whitening effects, and don’t help consistently with halitosis. Moreover, many of these brands advertise themselves as “all-natural” and forego added fluoride, which makes them a poor replacement for regular mouthwash (6).

What can a professional treatment offer instead?