How To Whiten Your Teeth At Home Safely

Whitening your teeth can be done effectively and efficiently in the comfort of your own home. However, it’s important to understand the different methods available to you—and how to use them safely.

Here’s everything you need to know about at-home teeth whitening.

How Does At-Home Teeth Whitening Work?

Teeth can develop two types of stains: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic stains appear in the natural small porosity, or tiny cracks, of your teeth. They affect your dentin, the layer of your tooth directly under the hard, protective enamel layer. Intrinsic stains are caused by certain medications, infections, typical aging, deficient restorations (fillings) and trauma. Whitening agents cannot break down some of the molecules responsible for intrinsic tooth staining, notably heavy, dark gray stains.

Extrinsic stains, as you may have guessed, are stains that appear on the outside layer of your teeth. If you enjoy drinking coffee, tea, soda, and/or red wine regularly, you likely have more extrinsic stains than someone who drinks mostly water. Eating certain bright-colored foods such as blueberries, beets, curries and tomato-based sauces and using tobacco products also darken teeth. At-home whitening products can be helpful in removing these exterior stains from your teeth.

Most teeth whitening products use one of two chemicals—hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide—as the active whitening agent. The oxygen molecules within these chemicals interact with the molecules of your discolored tooth. As the whitening agent molecules infiltrate your teeth, they weaken the bonds of the stained molecules, slowly removing them.

These two chemicals aren’t very different. In fact, hydrogen peroxide is found within carbamide peroxide. The main difference between these two chemicals is that hydrogen peroxide breaks down faster and has a shorter shelf life than carbamide peroxide. A dental professional may recommend carbamide peroxide for an at-home device that you will use over a long period of time.

Toothpastes are the exception to peroxide rule. Most toothpastes advertised to whiten teeth don’t contain a whitening agent, but rather abrasives such as silica that mechanically remove stains from the enamel layer of your teeth.

While teeth whitening procedures are likely offered by your dentist, many people turn to at-home whitening products for convenience and affordability. “If a person has sound, healthy teeth and tooth structure, an over-the-counter product could work,” says Robert DiPilla, a cosmetic dentist in Detroit. “However, for anyone with dental work, gingivitis, tooth sensitivity or decay, over-the-counter products can make those issues worse.”

Best Ways to Whiten Your Teeth at Home

There are plenty of options to choose from when considering what at-home whitening product is right for you. Narrowing down your budget, desired length of treatment and whitening goals will help you choose. Speak with your dental professional about what OTC products they would recommend given your unique oral health.

Teeth Whitening Kit

An over-the-counter whitening kit can involve a mouthguard-like tray filled with a gel or paste made of a peroxide solution. The tray sits over your teeth for a few minutes to a few hours a day, for up to a month, until you’ve achieved your ideal shade of white.

“In the old days, people used to sleep with whitening trays in for eight hours at a time,” says Joe G. Willardsen, a cosmetic dentist in Las Vegas. “Now, people wear them for 15 or 20 minutes at a time but do so more frequently.”

Kits with trays vary widely in price, from “boil and bite” kits for $25 that you boil in hot water at home and mold to your mouth when the tray becomes malleable, to combo kits that include an LED light mouthpiece (designed to speed the whitening process, although research on light activation effectiveness is mixed) and a whitening pen, starting at $150.

Find the best selling teeth whitening kits on Amazon.

Teeth Whitening Strips

Teeth whitening strips are a popular form of at-home whitening because of their price point, ease of use and noteworthy results. When you apply the gel side of these plastic strips to your teeth, the peroxide-based solution penetrates your enamel for results that can last up to several months.

Like trays, strips give your teeth prolonged exposure to a whitening chemical. The instructions that come with your dental strip will indicate how long each day, and for how many days, you should wear the strips for optimal results. Typically, you wear them twice a day for a short period of about 10 to 30 minutes. You will do this regimen daily for about two weeks. Strips range in price from $10 to $70.

Find the best selling teeth whitening strips on Amazon.

Teeth Whitening Pen

Whitening pens can be helpful on-the-go tools for touch-ups and maintenance. But they’re less efficient at whitening and often not recommended as a standalone whitener. “Without a guard or bumper to keep lips away from the gel, it’s going to be quickly diluted by saliva,” says Willardsen.

Compliance is often high, however, thanks to pens’ price point (which can be as affordable as just a few dollars per pen) and the simple instruction to apply twice daily for two weeks. Whitening pens typically use either a hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide base.

Find the best selling teeth whitening pens on Amazon.

Teeth Whitening Toothpaste

Abrasives such as hydrated silica, perlite and alumina are the most essential toothpaste ingredients when it comes to stain removal, according to a 2019 review of modern concepts in teeth whitening in Dentistry Journal.

However, it’s important to choose a toothpaste with the appropriate amount of abrasives. A toothpaste with a higher abrasivity could damage your enamel with long-term use. While this is a tradeoff for less abrasivity and a greater chance of developing stains, the removal of an enamel to expose the inner layer of dentin would cause more harm. Therefore, we recommend that you look for a stain removing toothpaste with the ADA Seal of Acceptance. If you choose a toothpaste without the ADA Seal of Acceptance, consult your dentist as to how often you should use it.

The American Dental Association ensures that with proper use, your enamel will not be weakened or damaged by their approved toothpastes. Some whitening toothpastes also contain low levels of hydrogen or carbamide peroxide, which, as noted above, brighten your smile too.

Find the best selling teeth whitening toothpastes on Amazon.

Other At-Home Teeth Whitening Methods

There are other ways to whiten your teeth, too, including natural remedies such as:

Baking Soda

Research shows using baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) can improve the appearance of your teeth. Since it’s an alkaline compound, it works to reduce stains and get rid of bad bacteria.

“The evidence available in the literature indicates that baking soda–based dentifrices are effective and safe for tooth stain removal and consequently whitening,” researchers write in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. “A number of clinical studies have also shown that baking soda–based dentifrices are more effective in stain removal and whitening than some non–baking soda—containing dentifrices with a higher abrasivity.”

Many conventional toothpastes include baking soda but you can also make your own paste by mixing the powder with water. If you do so, it may also be wise to follow up with a fluoride rinse.

Oil Pulling

This technique involves swishing oil in the mouth, often coconut oil, for 15 to 20 minutes up to three times a day—then brushing. This may help dental hygiene by stifling the growth of decay-promoting bacteria and reducing inflammation in the gums—although there is not enough research to support its use for brightening teeth.

How to Choose an At-Home Teeth Whitening Product

If you want to kick up the brightness of your smile, but don’t know where to start, talk to your dentist and consider your habits, budget and desired results.

“We evaluate each patient’s teeth and give them recommendations on the possible effects of whitening,” says John Dyer, a general dentist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. 

For example, if a patient was exposed to tetracycline antibiotics—a common medication to treat different bacterial infections—as a child and the result is stained teeth, bleaching will be less effective, Dyer says. “In addition, if a patient smokes cigarettes or drinks significant amounts of coffee and red wine, they may get a good initial result but will need to do bleach more often to maintain their level of brightness.”

When considering at-home whiteners, it’s helpful to ask yourself a few questions.

How quickly do you want a whiter smile? How fast at-home whitening products work varies depending on the type of application and the frequency of use. The effects of whitening strips and gels can typically be seen several  days after use, while whitening toothpastes may take longer.

The strength of the application also plays a role in how long you need to apply a treatment. Usually, the higher potency of a bleaching agent can initially boost whitening. But this can be a double-edged sword, as a higher percentage of whitening chemicals puts you at greater risk of sensitivity and inflammation.

What’s your budget? The cost of at-home whiteners ranges considerably—even within the same product type. But generally, kits and strips cost more than pens and toothpastes.

There are a few ways to stretch your whitening dollar—maintain a strong oral care routine (brush your teeth twice a day, floss and use a mouthwash daily) and avoid staining drinks and foods, such as coffee and red wine.

How To Whiten Sensitive Teeth

The most common adverse side effect of tooth whitening is sensitivity. The duration of treatment and the intensity and chemical makeup of the bleaching agent all contribute.

The ADA notes that further research is needed on sensitivity prevention for teeth bleaching. When you speak with your dental professional, be sure to ask about sensitivity as well. Your dentist can recommend any pre or post-whitening remedies that may have worked for their patients in the past. For example, they may recommend a desensitizing agent or a fluoride treatment to strengthen your enamel.

Treat oral health problems first. Tooth decay, cracked teeth or exposed roots at the gums also can cause tooth sensitivity, which may be made worse by whitening agents. If you have any signs of cavities or gum disease, get treated by a dentist before trying at-home whitening products.