Dear EarthTalk

I’m considering going for a teeth whitening, but is this safe to do?

Clara Reid

Kent, Wash.

In the U.S., teeth whitening products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as they are not classified as drugs. As such, long term safety data doesn’t exist for them. But health experts warn that consumers should beware of the risks of using stronger varieties containing hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide tends to be more effective (it essentially bleaches the tooth enamel), but it is a harsh chemical that can be poisonous if swallowed.

Europa, the official website of the European Union (EU), cites studies showing that bleaching teeth with hydrogen peroxide-based products can “harm the surface of the teeth, making the enamel more porous and leading to dents, scratches and loss of minerals.” Europa further warns that it’s important for people to keep their tooth enamel in good condition as it is “the protective, hard layer covering the softer dentine inside the tooth” and “does not regenerate.” The EU recommends people avoid tooth whitening products with hydrogen peroxide levels higher than a 1.5 percent concentration; most over-the-counter varieties come in at about a 0.5 percent concentration level. If the label on the product you are considering doesn’t indicate the concentration, it might be better to go with one that has a more complete ingredients listing.

Dentists can access teeth whitening solutions with higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide than are available over-the-counter; as such a professional job in your dentist’s office will be more effective and last longer than the solutions you can take home from the drug store. And while higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide might not be what you’re looking for, dentists can apply it in more targeted ways. If you do it yourself at home there is a greater chance you will expose your gums and other parts of your mouth to hydrogen peroxide or swallow more of it than you should.

As for maintaining that bright white look, whether you did it yourself or had it done professionally, your local drugstore or supermarket no doubt carries a wide selection of toothpastes that claim to whiten teeth. The ones which work the best contain — you guessed it! — hydrogen peroxide, which can be irritating if used day after day.

Fortunately for the health-minded home teeth whitener there are many less harsh varieties of these toothpastes now on the market. The website Skin Deep, a free online safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products published by the non-profit Environmental Working Group, lists Tom’s of Maine Natural Antiplaque Tartar Control Plus Whitening Toothpaste — which makes use of all-natural hydrated silica, not hydrogen peroxide, for whitening and stain removal — as one of the safest kinds of whitening toothpastes out there today. Burt’s Bees Natural Fluoride-Free Whitening Toothpaste and CloSYS Toothpaste for Teeth Whitening also get high marks from Skin Deep for their natural, non-toxic ingredients. While such products may not be “advanced” formulations from a leading packaged goods conglomerate, your teeth and body may thank you later.

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