How Safe Are Over-The-Counter Tooth Whiteners?

In college, I was never one of those girls who were impeccably groomed, with every strand of hair in place and toenails painted in the season’s hottest Pantone shade, perfectly preserved without a single chip in sight. I wasn’t exactly uncaring – I would even regularly change my hair color according to mood, sometimes unnecessarily on top of my student priority list. I just wasn’t as conscious about my appearance as most girls back then, that is until I was told seven words that forever changed the narcissist in me: “Hey, some of your teeth are yellow.”

Perhaps it was our dim, yellow-toned bathroom lighting at home, or my extra-curricular activity-filled college schedule, or maybe just my low standards of how a woman should present herself, but I never noticed any discolouration in my teeth until those words took a mouthy chomp on my self-confidence on that fated day. Granted, the colour was a bit uneven because I had previously worn braces, yet for someone to tell me that they’re yellow, had bothered me ever so slightly – so slight that I found myself in the drug store that afternoon, looking for over-the-counter tooth whiteners. Without much knowledge of what I was getting, I settled on a whitening gel slathered into plastic strips that I had to plaster over my teeth for a certain amount of time everyday for a few weeks.

Over the weeks, I religiously did my whitening routine, noticing gradual changes along the way. I was pleased – everything that the package had promised to deliver was being followed through impeccably. That is, until somewhere in the middle of the treatment, I noticed that the edges of my gums were starting to become pale. My teeth became really sensitive to cold food. Eventually, even using the strips would evoke a stinging sensation in my gums. I suddenly realized that I may have been too quick to trust in the product’s aesthetic promises without considering what it could do to my oral health. What’s more, the packaging said nothing about stinging, sensitivity and other possible side effects. This led me to question just how hastily over-the-counter tooth whiteners are distributed, and whether dentists recommend them, if they even approve of them at all.

I read a recent article about how the Irish Dental Association raised concerns over illegal tooth whitening services in the United Kingdom and that the new legislation that was introduced by the European Council Directive stated that tooth whitening products should not have more than 6% hydrogen peroxide. Also, tooth whitening products that contain somewhere between 0.1% and 6% should strictly be administered by professionally trained dental personnel. It made me look back at my uninformed whitening venture and, if a specific legislation must be crafted for safe dental whitening, how much is the public at risk for over-the-counter whitening products that are detrimental to the oral health?

Perhaps someone should take the lead in making sure that the public is informed, especially in this day and age where social media accounts of celebrities and models prove to be breeding ground for insecurity, of the risks that come with over-the-counter dental aesthetic products. It seems that tighter laws are needed as well when it comes to the commercialization of tooth whitening as well as other dental products that promise all sorts of physical improvement. It would be a shame for the youth to fall into early dental complications all because of uninformed decisions. For now, starting with casually informing young patients about products would one day mean a giant step for properly (and safely) administered tooth whitening.

Karen McDonagh is a proud contributing author and writes articles on several subjects including Dental Education. She is passionate for Dental Courses and always looking for better ways to educate people.

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