From whitening toothpastes, to over-the-counter whitening strips, to dental office procedures, all tooth-whitening measures contain hydrogen peroxide to lift away stains. The real difference is the concentrations of hydrogen peroxide used in each product and how it is applied to your teeth. And of course, cost is also a factor. Read on to learn more about the different methods available.

Whitening Toothpastes

Whitening toothpastes are the cheapest tooth whitening method and contain 1% to 1.5% concentrations of hydrogen peroxide. Those concentrations are adequate to clean surface stains but won’t penetrate your tooth enamel. The enamel tends to hold the deepest, hardest-to-remove blemishes—that black coffee or red wine gradually accumulates on your smile and leads to tooth discolouration. So if your teeth are seriously stained, a whitening toothpaste alone won’t get the job done, no matter how hard you brush. (In fact, brushing forcefully can damage your gums and tooth enamel, so is never advisable.)

Gels and Whitening Strips

Over-the-counter gels and strips are the next level up on the hydrogen-peroxide and price spectrum. They usually contain 6% to 10% concentrations of hydrogen peroxide and at these concentrations can penetrate microscopic holes and fissures in your enamel to bubble away stains.

While over-the-counter options can be very effective, the key is to apply gels and strips evenly and keep them on as long as directed. If strips or gel are applied incorrectly, your teeth could look unevenly white and gum irritation is also possible.

But there is an important caveat: whitening agents do not work on caps, crowns or fillings. If you’ve had some dental work done, you should speak with your dentist before you whiten your teeth to be sure the results will look uniform.

Dentist-Supplied Tray & Gel Systems

Another step up in both cost and potency is dentist-supplied tray and gel systems, which contain hydrogen peroxide in the 10% to 15% range and can cost several hundred dollars. They require a trip to the dentist, where a custom fitting of your mouth is made with a mold.  With this mold your dentist creates a tray to use with a whitening gel for you to use at home. The custom tray ensures the gel is evenly applied, and it can produce some pretty impressive results, but requires leaving the trays and gel on for several hours at a time.

Dentist Whitening Treatments

The final and most expensive option is settling into your dentist’s chair for a series of 10 to 15 minute whitening treatments. With hydrogen peroxide concentrations as high as 35%, these treatments can quickly make your smile a dozen shades brighter. They can also run you more than $1,000.

So how white should you go?

That’s really a personal preference. While some people want their teeth as white as possible, “natural” looking teeth are often just as attractive as ultra-bright white smiles.