Lighten Up!

Do your stained teeth make you frown? Don’t fret. Your dentist can advise on how best to brighten your smile.

If you regularly drink tea, coffee, cola or red wine, there’s a good chance that, over time, your teeth will become discoloured. Years of cigarette sm oking and tobacco use also result in dingy-looking or yellowed teeth. “The staining effect is caused by dark-coloured compounds, like the tannins found in tea and coffee or the nicotine in tobacco, that become trapped within the per son’s tooth enamel,” says Dr. Deborah Saunders, Medical Director of the Dental Oncology Program at Northeast Cancer Centre/Health Sciences North in Sudbury. “Blueberries, cherries, cranberries and soy sauce are also known to cause this same effect,” she says. “As a rule, if you regularly consume something that would stain your clothes, it has the potential to stain your teeth, too.”

Other factors can contribute to staining, advise s Dr. Saunders, including age, genetics, a type of bacteria called chromogenic, certain drugs taken at a young age (such as tetracycline, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections), deteriorating dental restorations, poor oral hygiene and tooth decay.

In recent years, tooth whitening and bleaching have become increasingly popular, and not just among celebrities. Everyone from your grandmother to your 20-something neighbour is asking for these treatments, too. In response to consumer interest and demand, a wide variety of professional and over-the-counter products and techniques to whiten or bleach teeth are now available, including gels, pastes, strips, gums and rinses.


Whitening or bleaching?

When companies market these products, the terms whitening and bleaching are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing. According to the Canadian Dental Association (CDA), whitening is defined as a “cosmetic process … that removes debris or staining from teeth through mechanical means” and the effects of whitening products (typically toothpastes or gums) are relatively minor.  Bleaching the teeth, on the other hand, offers “a more significant chemical effect that can’t be immediately reversed.” Current research indicates that over-the-counter tooth bleaching is a generally safe and effective way to improve how our teeth look, provided it’s done under your dentist’s careful supervision and according to the product manufacturer’s directions.

The CDA also notes that, unlike natural enamel, any crowns, fillings and other dental materials won’t be affected by bleaching compounds and may appear darker compared to the teeth that have been whitened. Also, if you have irregular tooth discolouration due to medications, aging or fluorosis (too much fluoride, from any source, over long periods when the teeth are forming during the first eight years of life), bleaching may produce unsatisfactory results.

If you want whiter teeth, but you’re overwhelmed by all of the over-the-counter options, it’s best to trust the experts. During an initial consultation, your dentist will determine the likelihood that bleaching will help and the potential for any negative effects. “Your dentist can let you know the cause of your tooth discolouration,” says Dr. Saunders, “and then recommend how to treat or manage it.”

A Caution for Kids and Expectant Mothers

The Canadian Dental Association says that, as with most elective procedures, tooth bleaching should wait until after a woman has had her baby, since the bleaching products haven’t been tested in pregnant women. Also, the products shouldn’t be used on children under 12 years of age.

Swimmers Beware

Dark stains have appeared on the teeth of some children who swim in a chlorinated pool up to 14 hours a week. The stain is brown to black in colour and hard in texture and most often observed along the gum line of the upper and lower incisors, says Dr. Saunders. The good news is that a dentist can remove the stain and using a special remineralizing toothpaste may help prevent it from developing.

Possible Harmful Effects

According to the Canadian Dental Association, when bleaching products are used as directed, tooth sensitivity and soft-tissue irritation are the most common negative side-effects; these problems usually go away on their own. If these or other side-effects persist, however, you should stop using the product and consult your dentist. The long-term effects of repeated bleaching, especially if the products aren’t used properly or if they’re used too often, aren’t yet fully understood but may include tooth pitting and pulp (nerve) damage.

Written by Jane Doucet.  Reprinted with permission of the Ontario Dental Association and Magazine, 2014.

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