Are Whitening Strips Safe?

Everyone wants whiter teeth, but is getting them threatening your health?

Teeth whitening

Teeth whitening photo via Shutterstock

There comes a time in every coffee drinker’s life when he or she is forced to admit that tooth yellowing is a real consequence of that daily caffeine boost. Whitening strips seem like the perfect solution—until worry sets in. Is tooth sensitivity really a harmless side effect? Is it really safe to put a mouthful of plastic and gel on your teeth for 30 minutes?

No need to freak out. Dr. Miguel Vidal, a dentist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says yes. “There’s been many numbers of studies that have tested the efficacy and safety of them, and they are safe,” he says, explaining that the polyurethane strips use a pre-portioned amount of harmless hydrogen peroxide to bleach the teeth.

Vidal’s only concerns with whitening strips are the frequency and longevity of their use. He recommends waiting as long as a year to a year and half between treatments, and cautions against starting too early. “There’s a lot of teenagers that want to bleach their teeth nowadays, and that we don’t have long-term studies on,” he says. “We have some studies on teenagers, but not if you start when you’re 15 or 16 and you continue bleaching for the rest of your life, what that kind of damage that can do to the enamel and to the pulp itself.”

Even with that caveat, Vidal says whitening strips are actually safer and more effective than some high-tech options. Vidal explains that take-home trays, which are custom-fit molds of the teeth, leave a larger margin for error since patients must add the bleaching agent manually, and in-office methods that use light, like Zoom, are risky. “That light heats up the bleach material to a certain degree, and that can heat up the nerve, and that’s where we run into potentially long-term issues with the health of the nerve,” he says. “You’re not going to have the tooth break or lose the tooth, it’s just things that you’d rather not have to deal with” like fillings or root canals.

All in all, Vidal says whitening strips are a harmless way to give in to your vanity. “Of the three, I always recommend to my patients to start with white strips,” he says. “It’s a cost effective way, and for some patients that’s all they need.”

Still wary? Vidal says about the only thing a patient can do without whitening strips is limiting coffee, tea, and wine consumption. And, sorry, whitening toothpaste fans—Vidal says they just don’t work. “They don’t work very effectively at all,” he says. “It’s fine for maybe peace of mind, maybe a placebo effect. But they’ve never been proven to whiten more than a shade or two for patients.”