When you have your teeth bleached in a dental office, the results almost seem like magic. Let's push aside the magician's cape and see what is really happening in professionally-applied, in-office tooth whitening.
How do teeth become discolored?
A tooth's enamel covering is mostly composed of mineral crystals. At a microscopic level, you can see a framework or matrix of organic (living) matter interspersed between the crystals of enamel creating a very irregular surface capable of retaining stains. Chromagenic (color generating) organic compounds can become part of this organic matrix resulting in tooth staining. They can be bleached without affecting the mineral structure of the tooth's enamel.
As people get older and their teeth wear, the enamel loses its youthful translucency and the underlying layer, called dentin, thickens and becomes more yellow. Such changes to the actual tooth structure are called intrinsic staining. Other causes of intrinsic discoloration are exposure to high levels of fluoride or tetracycline antibiotic administration during childhood, tooth decay, or root canal problems, among others. Discoloration can also be caused by external staining from certain foods, drinks, or tobacco products. Such surface stains are called extrinsic staining.
Behind the Magic
Materials used for tooth bleaching are hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide. Peroxides are commonly used as bleach, and you may have seen them used as hair bleaches, for example. Hydrogen peroxide is a strong oxidizing agent that attacks the organic molecules responsible for tooth discoloration, bleaching them until they lose their color. Carbamide peroxide also contains urea, which is a compound that permits the peroxide to remain in contact with the teeth for longer amounts of time without harming them.
Often called power bleaching, the in-office technique uses a high concentration of peroxide solution (35-45% hydrogen peroxide), placed directly on the teeth in the form of a gel. A heat or light source may enhance the peroxide release. The gel is applied with trays custom fitted to your mouth, and specific barriers are applied to protect sensitive gum tissue from the solution. Results show teeth becoming up to ten shades lighter in about an hour.
In-office bleaching under the supervision of my staff and me is recommended if you have severely stained teeth, and particularly if you are about to have veneers or crowns made. It's a way to rediscover the pearly translucency of your youthful smile.