Teeth whitening clinics are able to remove stains and discolouration from teeth to make them look whiter and healthier. Teeth whitening lightens the natural colour of your teeth without removing any of the tooth's surface. It’s a great way to boost your confidence – if you have lovely white teeth, you tend to smile more and your self-esteem will rise as you start to get compliments on your appearance.

White teeth are considered healthy and attractive but teeth can become discoloured for many reasons. Commonly, this is due to eating or drinking things with strong colourings, such as tea, coffee and red wine. Smoking can also make the teeth look yellow. Tooth decay, fillings, a build-up of tartar, or damage to the nerves or blood vessels caused by impact can also cause teeth to discolour. Even without any specific cause, teeth usually become darker as a natural part of the aging process.

This article on teeth whitening clinics is by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

Teeth whitening clinics – where are they?

Bleaching by a dentist is the most common form of professional teeth whitening. Most cosmetic dental practices run teeth whitening clinics that offer a variety of professional teeth whitening treatments, including immediate in-surgery teeth whitening and professional take-home tooth-whitening kits.

The teeth are bleached using a peroxide-based compound (usually hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide) of varying strength (3–30% peroxide). Higher concentrations of peroxide mean more powerful bleaching effects, but also greater potential to cause damage to the surrounding gum tissue and to your lips. Higher impact teeth whitening products should really only be used by a professional in teeth whitening clinics – home kits tend to have lower concentrations of peroxide.

What happens at the clinic?

The total treatment usually takes place over 3–4 weeks. This involves two or three visits to the teeth whitening clinic to take impressions, make a mouthguard, and begin the treatment. Following this, you will need to continue the treatment at home by regularly applying the whitening product over 2–4 weeks for up to an hour each time.

During the actual teeth whitening procedure, the dentist places a rubber shield or a gel on your gums to protect the soft tissue. He or she then applies the teeth whitening product, using a specially made tray that fits into your mouth like a gum-shield. The treatment may need to be repeated several times to achieve the results you want.

Some newer teeth whitening products can be applied for up to 8 hours at a time, allowing results to be achieved in as little as a week.

Professional teeth whitening and internal bleaching

Many teeth whitening clinics also offer internal teeth bleaching. Teeth are lightened by placing a bleaching product inside the tooth, not on the surface. Internal bleaching is only possible if your teeth have been root-treated successfully. When this is done, the blood vessels and nerves in the tooth are removed and a rubber filling is used to fill the empty tooth. This method of teeth whitening can be used on individual ‘dead’ teeth, which have been discoloured after root filling. These teeth can have the canal reopened and the whitening product placed inside to whiten the tooth.

Occasionally, the teeth whitening clinic will recommend a combination of external and internal teeth whitening to make the tooth look healthy again.

How long does it last?

The effects of professional teeth whitening can last up to 3 years, but this may be reduced if you smoke, or eat or drink products that can stain your teeth. Your dentist can give you an idea of how long your results might last.

What results can I expect?

The results vary from person to person and between the different teeth whitening methods used. Some people will experience a dramatic effect, while others may notice very little difference at all. The dentist at your teeth whitening clinic will be able to advise you on the likely results based on the original shade of your teeth and the teeth whitening method you choose.

Is this safe?

If teeth whitening is carried out by a professional at a reputable teeth whitening clinic, there is little risk. The concentration of the peroxide gel is tailored to you needs such that it doesn’t cause any damage or harm to your teeth, gums or fillings. The treatment is very safe when done by a professional and should not hurt at all.

Following teeth whitening treatment, some people may find that their teeth are more sensitive. Others report discomfort or white patches on the gums, or a sore throat. These symptoms are usually temporary and should disappear within a few days of the last teeth whitening treatment.

There is the potential for your mouth to be damaged if you use a home teeth whitening product but these are less concentrated, so the risk is fairly low. If you experience any problems, go back to your teeth whitening clinic for advice.

Is it right for me?

Teeth whitening only works on natural teeth and can only lighten your existing tooth colour. It only works on real teeth and any sort of crowns, veneers or dentures cannot be treated.

You may need dental treatment to ensure your teeth and gums are healthy before you have teeth whitening treatment. In some instances – for example, if your teeth are extremely sensitive or you have a lot of tooth decay – your teeth whitening clinic may recommend that you fix these more serious problems first.

Teeth whitening isn't usually recommended for children whose teeth are still developing or for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

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Teeth whitening clinics – are they safe?