In many cultures, pearly-white teeth are a desirable feature that many people strive for. However, teeth stain easily, so it is extremely difficult to achieve this with nothing more than basic brushing. As a result, many companies have launched a wide range of teeth-whitening products. Additionally, similar procedures are the most common operations in cosmetic dentistry. Over 100 million Americans rely on some form of teeth whitening each year. However, effectiveness varies greatly between methods, and some have potentially harmful effects.


1. Process

Two processes can stain teeth: extrinsic and intrinsic discoloration. The former occurs when foods, beverages, or other products stain the teeth. Intrinsic discoloration is when something within the tooth causes the discoloration. Each requires a unique whitening method, though most processes use the same whitening agents, usually hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. When these agents diffuse into the teeth, they release free radicals that attach to pigment molecules, causing them to reflect less light and appear whiter. Each whitening method uses different materials to clean the teeth, as well.

teeth whitening process peroxide stock_colors / Getty Images

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