The No-excuse Guide to Teeth Whitening

If it's true that the first thing a woman notices about a man is his smile, chances are you'd be luckier in love if your teeth didn't resemble tree bark. No matter the culprit -- cigarettes, coffee, inferior genetics -- brown teeth just aren't that sexy. And perhaps you've noticed they aren't quite so common anymore either: According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, teeth whitening has mushroomed from a $1.4 billion industry in 2005 to one worth $14 billion today.

Perhaps you've also noticed that there are now about as many teeth-bleaching methods to choose from as versions of Tide. Sure it’s confusing, but that shouldn’t stop you. We asked Dr. Maryann Lehmann -- a dentist and teeth-whitening expert in Darien, Conn., who holds several patents related to dental tooth color analysis -- to suss out the pros and cons of the various options now available to brighten your mouth. It turns out there’s a workable option for every budget. But before you do anything, she warns, see a hygienist. Whitening solutions can’t be absorbed into teeth caked in layers of nasty plaque.

In-office Whitening

Cost: Approximately $395 per visit

The most effective, immediate and, yes, expensive method for bleaching teeth is by way of an in-chair procedure. You say “Ahh,” and your dentist carefully seals your cheeks, lips and gums before applying a strong concentration of either hydrogen or carbamide peroxide to your fangs. Some offices employ lights or lasers to activate the solution, while others mix in components that kick-start the cleaning. “How the whitening works is that the peroxide is absorbed into the enamel rods,” says Lehmann. “Think of them as a matrix of straws in your teeth. This solution clears them out.” After the 60- to 90-minute procedure, patients may experience some passing sensitivity; in other words, lay off the Haagen-Dazs for a few days. And if your ultimate goal is to achieve a blinding Billy Bush-like smile, you can return to the chair up to three times per month. Say “Cheesy!”

Custom Tray Molds

Cost: Approximately $495 per three weeks of treatment

Unlike one-size-fits-all over-the-counter products (see below), custom trays are actual molds of your teeth that are cast during an in-office visit, and perfectly cover every last molar. “They fit like a glove and give you the most comfort and best isolation so that the solution stays where you want it,” says Lehmann. “They also let you choose the best strength of peroxide for you.” You’ll need to slip on the mouthpiece every night for two consecutive weeks (or longer for seriously gunked-up teeth) to see appreciable results. Incidentally, the younger you are, the faster this all works; younger teeth, it turns out, are more porous and thus easier to flush clean. Sorry, gramps.

Disposable Whitening Strips and Trays

Cost: Approximately $30 to $60 per kit

Taupe. Ochre. Russet. All lovely shades of brown. But if they describe the color of your teeth, and the above methods are out of your budget, head to your local pharmacy. Walk the oral-care aisle, and you’ll find all kinds of cool whitening products offered by trusted brands, like Crest. Of course, as usual, you do get what you pay for. Fact is the bleaching agents in these OTC products are much weaker than those you’d purchase directly from your dentist. But do they work? Unless your teeth resemble Raisinets, yes, they should make them whiter. But keep your expectations in check. “If you must choose, go with trays instead of strips,” says Lehmann. “Strips only cover about six teeth. Trays cover all of your teeth.”

Whitening Toothpastes and Pens

Cost: Approximately $2 to $6 per 6-ounce tube; $10 to $130 per pen

The newest toothpastes and whitening pens boast such breakthroughs as peroxide whitening oxygen bubbles, microbeads and crystals that are supposedly engineered to lift and remove gnarly surface stains from your teeth like some kind of dental ShamWow. Great pitch, only toothpastes and tooth pens can’t penetrate the dentin, the bone-like tissue residing just beneath the enamel. If your dentin is discolored, sorry, but no amount of scrubbing will clean it. “Toothpastes simply are not in contact with the tooth long enough to make an impact,” says Lehmann. Our advice? Save up your tooth-pen money for three months and invest in a disposable tray.