Ask Dr. D: Can I hurt my teeth by whitening them?

Dear Dr. Diesburg,

I really want to whiten my teeth but am a little worried. Can I hurt my teeth by whitening them? What kind of teeth whitening would you recommend?


Gary in McMinnville

Dear Gary,

There are three main ways to whiten your teeth, with varying degrees of effectiveness:

Whitening toothpaste doesn’t really change the shade of your teeth; it has a higher abrasive content (grit in the toothpaste), so it can help with staining but it doesn’t actually whiten them.

Products like Crest Whitening Strips, which you can get over-the-counter and do at home, are great if you’ve never whitened before. You will see a certain amount of benefit from using this type of product. Repeated use of those products will not get your teeth much whiter than the first time you use them, however. Professional-level whitening, which we do at our clinic in McMinnville, utilizes professional-level concentration materials are very effective.  You should visit your dentist to do this. Here’s how it works;

  • We make an impression of the teeth using dental impression material
  • We create a whitening tray for you with a little space added to teeth exactly where you want to whitening to occur (we do this so the whitening agent doesn’t get on your gums and minimize the about of agent needed)
  • You take the trays and the whitening material home and over the course of a week or two, you fill the trays according to the manufacturer’s instructions and keep them in your mouth for a period of time recommended by your dentist. As an added benefit, you can keep the trays for later use.

Whitening works best — and is safest — when you do it slowly over a period of time. We absolutely do not recommend tooth whitening for patients under the age of 18. It is possible to damage teeth with excessive whitening but almost exclusively if you do not use whitening products as instructed. The only adverse effect generally seen with appropriate use is sensitivity to cold after application of these these products. If you already have sensitive teeth it is best to have a conversation with your dentist prior to use of any whitening products.  If you are using any of these ways to whiten your teeth and experience cold sensitivity, discontinue or cut back on the whitening until the cold sensitivity fades and use a toothpaste for sensitive teeth, such as Sensodyne.

If you have custom trays they can be used to apply desensitizing agents available through your dentist. Whitening does not, however, whiten crowns or fillings. We recommend you whiten your teeth first to the desired shade before we adjust the color of any existing fillings or crowns.

Good luck,

Dr. Diesburg

Ask Dr. D is a a web series where Dr. Diesburg answers the dental care questions he fields most often from his patients. If you would like to ask Dr. Diesburg a question about any aspect of dental care, you can email him at adiesburgdds [at]

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