The dark side of DIY whitening

The dark side of DIY whitening

June 16, 2015

Looking to get a bright smile without visiting your dentist? A quick Internet search will turn up dozens of easy methods for whitening your teeth, many relying on items you'll likely to already have at home. But these simple recipes for whiter teeth may not be all they're cracked up to be.

Here's a closer look at the untold dangers of 12 do-it-yourself whitening methods.

Image of a baking soda container

Baking soda

How it works:

Baking soda is a mild abrasive. When mixed with water, it releases free radicals, which break down the stain molecules on the surface of the tooth's enamel. You can then brush the debris off with a toothbrush.

What you risk:

The abrasive nature of baking soda may eventually wear down your enamel if used too frequently.

The dentist weighs in:

"Unlike most toothpaste, it doesn't contain fluoride to prevent decay, so you definitely shouldn't use it as a substitute."

Image of a lemon

Lemons

How it works:

The acid in lemons leaches minerals from your teeth, making them appear whiter.

What you risk:

The acid can cause permanent damage to your enamel. In fact, a 2007 study found lemon juice to be more harmful to your teeth than either orange or grapefruit juice.

The dentist weighs in:

"No way. Lemon is very acidic and can dissolve your enamel."

Orange peel

(Oranges may be slightly less acidic than lemons, but it's the same terrible idea. Moving on.)

Image of a strawberry

Strawberries

How it works:

Strawberries are packed with malic acid, widely touted on the Internet as a natural whitener.

What you risk:

A 2014 study found that a mixture of strawberries and baking soda reduced tooth hardness by as much as 10%. That's a high price to pay, especially since another study found that the strategy didn't even whiten teeth.

The dentist weighs in:

"I prefer my strawberries with ice cream."

Image of an apple

Apples

How it works:

For more malic acid magic, bite into an apple — the acid is described as a natural whitener. Another explanation is that crunching on the fruit will cause friction that washes away yellow plaque.

What you risk:

If you're just eating apples occasionally, you should be fine. But if you're soaking your teeth in apple juice, the acidity will take a bite out of your enamel.

The dentist weighs in:

"An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but it won't make your teeth whiter."

Image of a container of hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)

How it works:

Hydrogen peroxide penetrates enamel and causes an oxidation reaction, breaking apart the molecules staining your teeth.

What you risk:

An at-home bleaching attempt could result in tooth sensitivity and irritation of the soft tissues in your mouth, especially your gums. The worst-case scenario is if you swallow the stuff. In small amounts, it can cause stomach irritation and vomiting. In larger amounts, it's poisonous and may require a trip to the emergency room.

The dentist weighs in:

"Hydrogen peroxide will whiten teeth if it is kept on the surface of the tooth long enough and frequently enough, but too much exposure can cause irritation of the gums and other oral tissue."

Image of an apple

Oil pulling

How it works:

Swishing for 20 minutes with a glob of coconut oil is all the rage. Not only is it recommended to rid your body of everything from toxins to a hangover, the oil is supposed to absorb the bacteria staining your teeth.

What you risk:

Only a few limited studies suggest benefits of this practice, and there are also no established harms. There are some suggestions it may be linked to the uncommon lung condition lipoid pneumonia, but the bigger risk is that you'll ditch your fluoride toothpaste in favor of your coconut oil rinse. As for cleaner teeth, the truth is that extensive rinsing is always going to help loosen plaque, whether you're doing it with water or unrefined oil.

The dentist weighs in:

"I have no knowledge of whether this whitens teeth, but I'm very skeptical."

Image of a container of apple cider

Apple cider vinegar

How it works:

The acidic content of the vinegar is said to dissolve stains, leaving your teeth whiter after multiple rinses.

What you risk:

You'll wash away your enamel right along with those stains.

The dentist weighs in:

"Bad idea — apple cider vinegar is very acidic and can dissolve your enamel."

Image of a container of sea salt

Sea salt

How it works:

It's the same idea as using salt to exfoliate your skin — the crystals rub away the debris on your teeth.

What you risk:

Stains aren't all you're rubbing away. You may also be removing a layer of enamel.

The dentist weighs in:

"Because of the abrasive nature of salt, you may remove some surface stains, but if you're sensitive to sodium or watching your salt intake, it's probably best to avoid this questionable method."

Image of a basil leaf

Basil

How it works:

It's not clear what the magic whitener in basil is. Some recipes for homemade whitening paste recommend applying pure basil powder, while others suggest mixing basil with orange peels or mustard oil.

What you risk:

Basil by itself is unlikely to do much damage — unless you toss your fluoride toothpaste for the green goop — but putting acidic orange peels on your precious enamel is always a no-no.

The dentist weighs in:

"Well, this is a new approach. I've never heard of using basil to whiten your teeth. While it shouldn't cause any harm, it probably won't do much good."

Image of a container of tumeric

Turmeric

How it works:

No one knows for sure, but some bloggers swear by it. Some point to the antibacterial properties of the spice, while others describe its abrasive properties.

What you risk:

No long-term harms have been established, but before you jump on board, prepare yourself for a newly yellow toothbrush — and potentially yellower teeth.

The dentist weighs in:

"The only studies in favor of using turmeric suggest it fights the bacterium Streptococcus mutans — not the stains on your teeth."

Image of a piece of charcoal

Activated charcoal

How it works:

If you've ever taken charcoal tablets for an upset stomach, you know that activated charcoal is very absorbent. The same logic is offered when it comes to tooth whitening: the charcoal is said to absorb the tannins staining your teeth, drawing them out of your enamel when you brush the black stuff away.

What you risk:

Abrasion is the major concern. Although there's little research on charcoal used alone, a Malaysian study found that villagers who brushed their teeth with a charcoal and salt mixture had "distinct forms of abrasion cavity." You may also end up with a blackened sink.

The dentist weighs in:

"This is definitely an unproven approach to whitening your teeth."


Bottom line? DIY whitening is a risky business, and a lot of the time, it doesn't even work. Before you embark on any at-home attempts to brighten your smile, run the idea by your dentist.