The Pitfalls of a Brighter Smile

Do-it-yourself attempts to whiten your teeth may leave you frowning

SUNDAY, Dec. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're thinking about using a do-it-yourself bleaching kit for your teeth, there's a chance your efforts to brighten your pearly whites will leave you with little to smile about.

"It's like anything else, in moderation it's really safe. But in certain situations, the potential for problems is there when it goes unmonitored," says Dr. David McFadden, an associate professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

If you have any teeth with deep cavities, the bleach could have an unimpeded route to the blood vessels, nerves and bones at the root of the tooth, McFadden says. That can lead to a serious toothache or infection.

"So, if you're a person who doesn't go to the dentist and you already have a nerve [in a tooth] exposed, then [bleaching] could just precipitate or speed up that whole process of the nerve dying, subsequently causing an infection," he says.

Before you buy an over-the-counter tooth bleaching kit at your local drug store, McFadden recommends that you visit your dentist for an examination to ensure you're cavity-free.

But Dr. Richard Price, a dentist in Newton, Mass., who is a consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, says he's not comfortable with do-it-yourself bleaching kits.

If you want to have your teeth bleached, Price says the best approach is doing it under a dentist's supervision.

"We're talking health here, not about putting fingernail polish on. We're talking about putting something into your mouth that can irritate the gums, that can irritate the back of your throat, that may cause some damage to teeth," he says.

Dentists have a thorough understanding of their bleaching products and their proper application, he adds.

Price says he does a lot of cosmetic surgery, but he questions the growing clamor for shiny, white smiles.

"I'm getting uncomfortable with this whole emphasis on cosmetic dentistry, i.e., bleaching teeth. What about a healthy mouth first? You know, white teeth do not a healthy mouth make. So, let's start with things healthy, and then we'll make it prettier," Price says.

He also says that some teeth simply can't be bleached bright-white because of a variety of factors, including heredity, staining, or if your teeth were affected by tetracycline when you were a child.

Tetracyclines, which are antibiotics used to treat a variety of infections and acne, discolor growing teeth in children 8 years old and younger.

If your teeth have been affected by tetracycline, "you can bleach until the cows come home and you're not going to get those teeth whiter," Price says.

What to Do: For more information on teeth whitening, visit the American Dental Hygienists' Association, or the American Dental Association's patient and consumer guide.

SOURCES: Interviews with David McFadden, D.M.D., associate professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; Richard Price, D.M.D., Newton, Mass., consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, and adjunct clinical instructor, Boston University Dental School
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