Tooth sensitivity seems to be a reason to fear teeth whitening, whether it is an issue you've struggled with or worry about developing, but there are ways to reduce the severity of tooth sensitivity while gaining a whiter smile.
How Does Teeth Whitening Work?
Teeth whitening is a process of applying a bleaching agent, typically carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide, to the outer surface of your teeth to reverse discoloration. Performed in a dental office or at home, teeth whitening products can come in the form of gel strips, toothpaste, gel trays, pens, blue light, and others. Regardless of the method, the bleaching agent gets applied to the outer layer of your teeth, the enamel, and is left on for an instructed amount of time to break-down staining.
The chemical component used in teeth whitening may be safe for your general health and brighten your smile, but it doesn't come without some factors to consider—largely tooth sensitivity.
What Causes Sensitive Teeth After Whitening?
If you're whitening at home, the bleaching agent will likely be weaker than at the dentist. Over the counter teeth whitening products range from 3% to 20% peroxide, while in office treatments range from 15% to 43% peroxide. The higher the peroxide percentage, the less amount of time it can safely remain on your teeth. If left on too long or repeated too frequently, tooth sensitivity may occur at a faster rate. Though often temporary, sometimes tooth sensitivity can become more permanent.
With that said, when you whiten your teeth, the peroxide solution temporarily removes the tooth's protective protein layer from the surface of the enamel. Removing this essential protein film is necessary as it sits above the tooth stains that need to be broken down. However, when this layer is diminished, the tooth surface becomes more porous and tiny dentinal tubules within the tooth become exposed. Dentinal tubules are itty bitty channels that carry nutrients through the tooth. They begin in the pulp, the inner layer of the tooth, and run outward through the dentin, the middle layer of the tooth. The outer surface of the tooth, the enamel, protects the dentinal tubules so as enamel wears, or temporarily becomes more porous, like by teeth whitening, hypersensitivity may occur.
Symptoms of Tooth Sensitivity
It's safe to say that if you have tooth sensitivity, you are well aware. Though the discomfort is momentary, when you feel it, you feel it! That jolt of pain when you eat or drink something really hot, really cold, sweet, salty, or acidic will immediately notify you that your dentinal tubules are exposed as these types of foods and beverages transmit sensations to the nerves within the depths of your tooth.
Chances are, if you feel jolts of short-lived pain when brushing, eating, and/or drinking, you probably are dealing with tooth sensitivity.
How to Reduce Sensitivity from Teeth Whitening Treatments
Some people experience tooth sensitivity regularly, while others may only after teeth whitening. The degree to which we experience tooth sensitivity after teeth whitening varies, but luckily there are ways to reduce discomfort.
- The stronger the teeth whitening treatment, the more sensitivity you may experience. Also, the frequency in which you are whitening your teeth will affect sensitivity.
- If you're a frequent whitener, try stretching out applications. This will allow your teeth more time in between sessions to remineralizer and settle back to, or close to, normal.
- If you typically use a highly concentrated tooth whitening system, like an in-office dental treatment, try a whitening product with a lower peroxide percentage. Though the immediate result may not be as bright and white as you desire, this gentler method will reduce the harshness on your teeth.
- If you've just whitened your teeth and have noticed some discomfort, try drinking through a straw over the next few days or weeks while your teeth settle; however, if your desired beverage is ice cold or piping hot, it would be best to avoid consumption for now. As with food, avoid eating anything too hot or too cold, sweet, salty, and acidic. While the dentinal tubules are exposed, being mindful of what you are consuming will reduce the amount of pain that's triggered through transmission to the nerve.
- Toothpaste formulated for those with sensitive teeth will help discomfort. Desensitizing toothpastes are designed to seal off the ends of the dentinal tubules. Each time you brush, this seal will strengthen, and, over time, you'll experience reduced sensations. Applying extra dabs of desensitizing toothpaste to the affected teeth and allowing it to sit for extended time will aid in desensitizing.
- Special desensitizing gels that can be purchased over-the-counter help limit sensitivity when applied before teeth whitening by calming dental nerves. After teeth whitening, some desensitizing gels will help provide immediate relief from tooth sensitivity discomfort.
- If your tooth sensitivity has become more consistent, try taking a break from teeth whitening treatments. Instead, use a whitening toothpaste that will help remove surface stains. Or, if you're using a desensitizing toothpaste, add in a tooth whitening gel which just gets mixed with your preferred toothpaste. These results may be slow and steady, but you will be limiting the harshness on your teeth that contributes to sensitivity.
- It is also important to note, what you use to brush your teeth and your brushing technique will impact tooth sensitivity, whether you're whitening your teeth or not. Using a hard toothbrush and brushing too aggressively will wear at your tooth's enamel. When this happens, so can sensitivity. So, be mindful to apply limited pressure and gently use soft, circular motions. One way to assist with brushing is to use an electric toothbrush that helps with applied pressure, deeper cleaning, and appropriate brush strokes.
What Should You Look for in a Teeth Whitening Product?
When you're thinking about whitening your teeth, here are some things to look for:
- If tooth sensitivity is already your fate, seek out a teeth whitening product that is specific to sensitive teeth. The product will contain additional ingredients to help with sensitivity. Whether hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide is the bleaching ingredient, it shouldn't have a bearing on tooth sensitivity.
- Knowing and understanding the percentage of peroxide in a teeth whitener is critical. If the percentage is higher, the processing time will be less than a product with a low percentage of peroxide. Following the instructions precisely is necessary for the health of your teeth. Leaving a product on longer than instructed will not further whiten teeth but will create more sensitivity. If your teeth are already sensitive, using a product with shorter processing duration will be beneficial.
- Understanding the application process and frequency of application are important to ensure a positive outcome. If you're using a stronger formula, chances are you will apply tooth whitener less frequently than a mildly concentrated formula. Consider your level of commitment—daily, weekly, monthly—to teeth whitening. Also, what method will work best for you—gel trays, strips, in-office treatment, etc.
- Does the product have the ADA Seal of Acceptance? You'll be better off choosing a teeth whitener that does. This means that the product has received approval from the ADA assuring safety and efficacy.