February 18, 2014 Updated: February 18, 2014 at 9:50 am
While many of us might wish for movie star-bright white teeth, the reality is most of us have teeth that have yellowed with age.
Yours also could be graying or browning. Or, worse yet, you could be wearing away your teeth's enamel completely, exposing the golden, sensitive dentin underneath.
Even if your teeth are shade B1, the lightest natural shade for teeth, you might still feel the need for whitening - especially as we are inundated with beautiful actors and actresses strutting their larger-than-life, unearthly white teeth across our enormous high-definition TVs and movie screens.
"I've found that almost every person that walks into the door thinks their teeth are not white, whether they are or not," said Dr. Michael K. Kirk, a dentist at Grand Dental Studio in Oklahoma City. "It's all about your perception. Obviously, if you have that perception that your smile's not bright, then it's going to affect your self-confidence and your personality, the way you smile, your general approach to life."
Whether to go pro
For years, I dreamt of bright, gleaming white teeth, especially after about 10 years of orthodontic torture in my formative years. Yes, my teeth were straight, but I hated wearing white shirts because they emphasized my cafe au lait chops. Red lipstick? Forget it - my teeth looked the color of Big Bird.
I'd tried store-bought white strips with rotten luck. They're not cheap. It was hard to find a good time to wear them. The fissures in my teeth allowed the whitening gel to assault the nerves in the dentin. The "zingers" lasted for days, and most times half the box of strips went unused for these reasons.
So, when Dr. Kirk offered to let me try Lumibrite, an in-office professional whitening procedure, I was excited, yet hesitant. How would my sensitive teeth handle being exposed to chemicals for an hour under an ultraviolet light?
For comparison, Kirk offered to treat my friend Ebony Dallas with take-home whitening trays. She, too, was concerned about teeth sensitivity and finding time to wear the trays for two weeks.
First a mold was taken of her teeth, from which fitted trays were made. The doctor gave Dallas a tube of whitening gel and told her to wear the trays with gel for three minutes each day. After the three minutes, she was to leave the gel on her teeth for 30 minutes, then rinse. She was to repeat this process every day for two weeks.
Some might not have the fortitude for this kind of routine, but Dallas did. She started noticing some dark spots on her teeth disappearing. Every day, she noticed her teeth getting whiter.
Dallas said she had no sensitivity with her take-home whitening trays. She found them fairly easy to wear as she was instructed. It's best to be careful when pursuing at-home treatment: Gum sensitivity or damage can result if gel from at-home trays leaks onto the gums.
When I went into Kirk's office, Charissa Jones, a dental assistant who is pursuing a dentistry degree, explained the whitening process to me.
First, she cleaned my teeth of plaque. Plaque is where many of the stains caused by coffee, wine, tobacco and other colorful edibles get stuck.
Next, she painted on a desensitizing gel. This miracle gel, whose active ingredient is a high concentration of fluoride, made my teeth numb enough that I had no sensitivity until a little discomfort at the very end of the process.
I sat still with an ultraviolet light shining on my teeth, which were coated with the Lumibrite solution, whose active ingredient is carbamide peroxide. With headphones on, listening to music, I was perfectly comfortable in the dentist's chair, contrary to the visions of pain and discomfort I'd held beforehand. In fact, I struggled not to doze off. After the procedure, I was amazed to see that my teeth were white. Really white!
Though my teeth weren't nearly as yellow to begin with as I'd thought, now they were unnaturally white - much like those celebrity teeth I'd envied.
I did experience sensitivity the rest of that day. Zingers, as they're called, zapped my teeth like little lightning bolts every few minutes. But it wasn't severe and only lasted that day. Most people get zingers for a day or two, Kirk said.
Most people can benefit from professional whitening treatments, Kirk said. The exceptions are those whose enamel is worn away, exposing the dentin. Dentin won't whiten and is where the sensitive nerve endings reside.
Whitening procedures aren't recommended for those younger than 16 or for those with worn enamel, untreated cavities, exposed roots or gum disease.
If you're not a good candidate for whitening but want bright movie star teeth, porcelain veneers might be your best bet. Though expensive, they can be fitted over your teeth and come in shades of white not naturally found in real teeth. Veneers can last up to 20 years.