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White teeth are desirable. Survey after survey confirms what a casual glance at the latest Hollywood blockbuster or magazine ad spread suggests: people associate white teeth with everything from wealth to intelligence to overall attractiveness. And because the people featured in those ads and in those movies tend to be otherwise fit, young, and healthy-looking, the automatic assumption is that white teeth, beautiful teeth, are also healthy teeth.

Which is only sort of true.

Whiteness is what you could call an indirect measure of teeth health. A well-cleaned mouth – one free of plaque and bacterial infection — will feature whiter teeth than one that goes uncared for. But it does not necessarily follow that all white smiles are perfectly healthy, and definitely does not follow that all healthy teeth are perfectly white.

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Some teeth, even with regular treatment, will never achieve the fine porcelain color we have come to expect from our public figures. There is some degree of genetic variance in color to begin with, and staining occurs as a biproduct of eating lots and lots of food over the years — habits like frequent coffee or wine drinking can speed up the effect without impacting tooth health. (Note: that is not a commentary on general health. And even for teeth, alcoholism can cause serious problems, as can smoking cigarettes, another habit that causes staining, and one that leads to severe damage to gums in particular.) But mostly, it comes down to what’s natural.

Enamel, the protective coating that surrounds the outside of teeth, is fairly translucent, with a faint bluish gray color rather than a pure white. What rounds out teeth color, then, is the more spongy substance inside, dentin. Dentin is closer to dull yellow than white in color, which is why as we age, and our enamel thins, our teeth become yellowish irregardless of staining.

It’s fine to want whiter teeth for purely cosmetic reasons. Plenty of people do. Last year, teeth whitening became an $11 billion industry.

People have been going to great and lengths to figure out the secret of white teeth for a long time now. The Ancient Greeks and Renaissance Europeans tried acid treatments that ultimately left their teeth crumbled and ruined. Science has advanced since then, and even the more intense professional bleaches and whitening procedures now carry little risk if executed responsibly.

Counterintuively, it’s the generic products that present the bigger danger. And not because they cut corners or contain unproven formulas. Rather, it’s the way people use them that become the problem.

Most whitening strips have a prescribed waiting period in-between treatments and a suggested limit to the amount they can be used in a given timeframe. But people ignore the instructions, especially when they don’t see the effects they were hoping for. The acids used in most whiteners can cut through enamel if the strips are left on too long or applied too frequently. Improper use can also lead to gum recession, which leaves teeth brittle and can introduce harmful bacteria into the general bloodstream.

People who overuse whiteners tend to feel sensitivity to heat or even air, and use past a certain point will ultimately lead to thinner, weaker, bluish-looking teeth. The fundamental flaw of tooth whitening is that people expect big results quickly and that is sometimes not realistic.

Follow healthy dental hygience practices, and your teeth will be strong, and most likely, whiter than they otherwise would be. And if you want to go beyond that to use additional products, that’s fine as well. But be careful not to overdo it, or you could damage your smile, and leave it looking sicker than before you started whitening. If you are interested in teeth whitening, we also provide free LA dental consultations here.