Your baby teeth were probably pearly white, but as we get older, our teeth can become stained or yellowed. Colored pigments in coffee, tea, and red wine are notable for staining teeth due to compounds called chromogens. Tobacco in any form also causes stains. As the outer layer of enamel becomes thinner due to wear, the yellowish underlayer (called dentin) can show through. Other things that can stain teeth are some medications (particularly an antibiotic called tetracycline), radiation, chemotherapy, and injuries. Whitening teeth isn't necessary for health reasons, only for esthetic effects. Tooth whitening doesn't mean you can scamp on oral hygiene; continue to floss daily, brush twice a day, and see your dentist for regular checkups and preventive care.
If you want to use a home product, ask your dentist for suggestions. These are not usually as effective as whitening done by a dentist and only remove surface stains. At-home treatments include special toothpastes, gels, and strips that contain hydrogen or carbamide peroxide. Your dentist can perform chair-side bleaching, which uses stronger concentrations of whitening agents. Your gums must be protected from the solution with a special gel or a rubber shield. Some chair-side treatments also include the use of lasers or special lights.
Tooth whiteners may cause increased tooth sensitivity. This usually happens if the whitener gets through the outer enamel layer into the dentin. Tooth sensitivity is usually temporary. If you're using at-home whiteners too frequently, they can damage the gums or tooth enamel. Bleaching treatments don't work for some conditions. Teeth that are yellowed usually respond well when bleached. If your teeth have gray tones, however, bleaching may be less effective. Stains from medications or injuries may not bleach out at all. Bleaching only works on natural teeth; if you have crowns, veneers, or implants, they will not be affected.
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