Let the pearly whites shine: Easier said than done

“Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond,” writes Miguel de Cervantes in “Don Quixote.” Although the quote may exaggerate the significance of teeth, having pearly whites can be seen as a treasured prize, showing signs of health and beauty.

For many, however, striving for such is not easy. Every day, people subject their teeth to a variety of conditions that leave a lasting discoloration behind. Certain lifestyles or routines can stain teeth, but the more one eats or drinks substances with intense color, the quicker the discoloration occurs.

“It depends on your habits and what you eat and drink,” said Dr. Deborah Stewart, dentist in Champaign. “Those are the factors that will put color back into your teeth eventually.”

There are many causes for teeth discoloration, including regular use of carbonated drinks, tea, coffee, cigarettes and other tobacco products. Other possible causes include fruit juices (especially grape), red wine and fruits like blueberries and cranberries. If you’re worried about spilling a food or beverage on a white tablecloth, then it has potential to stain your teeth.

A common route for those who want a quick fix for those yellowing or stained teeth is whitening, a chemical way to return the tooth to its natural color.

“Whitening uses carbamide peroxide in gel form,” said Dr. Thomas Standley, Champaign dentist. “It oxidizes the stains in a chemical reaction to remove the stains off of the teeth.”

Many think that rinses and toothpaste that have the words “whitening” can do the trick. However, for real removal of the yellowing, using peroxide or a derivative is essential.

“The rinses and the toothpaste basically help keep your teeth white after you’ve got your teeth whitened,” Stewart said. “Using strips or coming in to the office for whitening will actually get to the root of the problem.”

Standley added that either whitening with over-the-counter strips or going to a dentist will do the job, but going to the dentist will provide a more accurate and quicker way to whiten teeth. That is because custom trays are made and powerful lighting equipment is used.

“You have them done by making a custom tray, which is taking impressions of your teeth and pouring those impressions with plaster,” Standley said. “Now you have a model of your teeth that fits precisely. It makes the subsequent whitening more accurate and safer for your gums.”

Another benefit from going to the dentist is that you can use the trays over and over. With custom trays, patients keeps those trays and can just buy refills at the dentist’s office. Stewart adds that one application might last for quite some time, even up to two years. Many will just use the trays to touch up again when they start seeing discoloration.

Like any medical procedure, however, issues of safety need to be considered. Stewart underscores the fact that whitening is pretty safe to do. It doesn’t cause any damage to the teeth, and it doesn’t matter if you have a filling or other treatments previously done.

That does not mean nothing can go wrong, however. Sensitivity to cold or air is one of the most common side effects. Usually it goes away after a brief period. Other issues, like gum irritation, can arise if the application was poor.

“But since the (active ingredient) is a relative of peroxide, it can oxidize the gum tissues. People might get a chemical burn if they had ill-fitting trays or if they try to do it themselves,” Standley said. “This might be due to using too much gel without being supervised or counseled on how to do it properly.”

However uncomfortable these minor side effects are, most people will opt to use whitening strips or other forms of treatment on their teeth.

Although aging and everyday use will diminish the whiteness of that smile, taking care of teeth is an important part of dental hygiene. Having those white, shiny teeth might enhance confidence levels and make you look even younger than you are.