Cosmetic dentistry is a huge industry. As humans, all we really need is enough orthodontic work to keep our teeth relatively straight so they don't cause damage to surrounding tissues, and enough dental care to avoid cavities that lead to dangerous infections. And yet we have a culture obsessed with perfect teeth, not just carefully lined up like soldiers in a parade, but a perfect, brilliant shade of white.
Trying to get whiter teeth isn't unusual. There are dozens of toothpastes with promises of whitening power, chemical-laced strips you place over your teeth to whiten them, mouthwashes to bleach them, polishing treatments that cost you an arm and a leg, and more. And yet despite many of these treatments, most of us fail to live up to the ideal seen on TV.
There's a good reason for that: what you see on TV, from movies to TV shows to commercials, makes liberal use of CGI to change natural off-white teeth into perfectly straight, flawless, porcelain white. When it's not CGI, it's still fake; rather than whiten existing teeth, celebrities often opt for veneers, which are a permanent shell placed over teeth similar to the way fake nails are adhered to your fingernails.
That's not to say the goal of whitening your teeth is a bad one. If you're not pleased with the appearance of your teeth, it can affect your daily life in a host of negative ways. Self-confidence suffers, and that alone can make the rest of your life more stressful. If whitening your teeth makes you feel better, by all means, go for it.
It makes sense that, if you're looking to whiten your teeth, you want to get the most effective treatment you can find. Normally that means some kind of dental procedure, whether it's chemical whitening strips, in-office abrasion and chemical treatments, or another harsh procedure.
These are, of course, not without risk. For example:
- Most chemical and abrasive teeth whitening leads to thinner enamel, which increases tooth sensitivity to temperature, sugar, and air.
- Tooth whitening can lead to what is called "gingival irritation", or in layman's terms, irritated and swollen gums. If you've ever stabbed your gums with some sharp bit of food and had them swell up for a day or two, imagine that throughout your whole mouth, for days.
- Frequent, extended, or recurrent treatment can lead to thin and damaged enamel, making your teeth more susceptible to damage, cavities, and even infection.
On top of that, many of these treatments are expensive. It's no wonder that so many people turn to home remedies to whiten their teeth more naturally.
How Teeth Whitening Works
First, in general, let's talk about how tooth color works. Your teeth start fairly white, though perhaps not porcelain white like veneers end up looking. Throughout your adult life, various internal and external factors can affect the color of your teeth.
Internal factors, such as medication use, illness, aging, and infection can all degrade the color of your teeth. Sometimes you may even have a tooth die – or have a root canal that "kills" a tooth – and that essentially halts internal color changes, while the rest of your teeth continue to change.
Internal color changes are difficult to whiten successfully, and typically require a deep treatment. Since the color goes through a large portion of the enamel rather than just the surface, as with external staining, any whitening treatment needs to go just as deep.
External factors include consuming things that affect the color of your teeth. The most obvious are smoking and coffee. You know how your favorite white coffee mug ends up looking dingy and brown over time? The same thing happens to your teeth. Smoking is extremely staining, not to mention fraught with other issues. Other types of food, including tea, red wine, and foods containing synthetic dyes can all stain teeth if consumed regularly.
To whiten teeth, various chemical agents are used to penetrate the enamel and effectively bleach the colored molecules in that enamel. Most office-based remedies use a peroxide solution to do this. Some add accelerants like abrasive scrubbing, LEDs that stimulate the chemical reactions, or more concentrated chemicals. It's generally a slow process as well; it will take numerous repeated treatments to whiten your teeth to a significant degree, and if you continue consuming the foods that stained them, they can simply be stained again.
Home remedies for teeth whitening are common, but are they effective? The three most common teeth whitening home remedies are charcoal, baking soda, and turmeric. Let's look at them and see how effective they may be.
Baking Soda Teeth Whitening
Among all of the various home remedies for whitening your teeth, baking soda is perhaps the most recognized. It's so common, in fact, that there have been commercial toothpastes with baking soda as an active ingredient for decades. It's no coincidence that the baking soda brand Arm and Hammer also makes toothpastes.
Baking soda works in two ways. First, it's an abrasive, cleaning your teeth the same way toothpaste cleans them, and helping to scrub and remove surface-level staining. Second, it's an alkaline chemical, which can help remove some discoloration chemically. It's similar to peroxide treatments, but much less potent.
Baking soda can be used alone or with other additives to give it more chemically active properties. Here are some we've seen:
- Baking soda and water. Combine the two to form a paste and brush with it for two minutes, covering your teeth from all angles. This is the most basic form of baking soda treatment.
- Baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. This ramps up the chemical effects of the baking soda and adds peroxide to the mix. Use about twice as much peroxide as baking soda to make a paste. Brush for a couple minutes, then let it sit on your teeth for a minute before rinsing.
- Baking soda and vinegar. Most commonly apple cider vinegar, but other vinegars can work. Mix this in a 2:1 ratio of vinegar to baking soda, again to make a paste and brush with it.
- Baking soda and lemon. Adding a bit of lemon juice to the baking soda to make a paste can be potent, but it's also potentially dangerous. Acids like lemon juice can erode tooth enamel quickly, so regular use of this combination can do more harm than good.
There are other mixtures as well, if you want to try them.
So how does baking soda stand up as a teeth whitening agent? Well, but not too well.
The fact is, baking soda was the go-to toothpaste equivalent before commercial toothpastes had even been invented. It's been around a long time, but like many such remedies, commercial products out-do it. Baking soda works for tooth cleaning, but it's potentially too abrasive to use regularly without causing damage to your teeth.
Additionally, some of the mixtures can be dangerous. Lemon juice just adds to further tooth decay, and hydrogen peroxide means you're just making a weaker version of what dentists would be doing for you in a safer, more controlled environment.
Charcoal Teeth Whitening
Charcoal, specifically activated charcoal, is another tooth cleaning and whitening remedy that has been around for a while, but has only recently been picking up more and more followers.
Activated charcoal is in some ways the opposite of baking soda. Instead of being a fine white powder, it's a fine black powder. It's created by burning natural ingredients, like olive pits, coconut shells, and wood, at very high heat. This creates a kind of charcoal that is very porous and absorbent.
Before we get into how to use activated charcoal, make sure you're always getting activated charcoal. Regular charcoal is much worse for you, and can be carcinogenic. Activated charcoal, meanwhile, is so absorbent that it is used as a poison control and toxin filter, as well as a component in modern gas masks and water filters.
It's also worth noting that even commercial charcoal toothpastes might not be safe. There's some question as to whether or not some brands are even using activated charcoal, as opposed to regular charcoal or even just black dyes. Thankfully, by making your own concoction at home, you'll save yourself that uncertainty.
There's not really much of a recipe for using activated charcoal. Just take a small amount of the powder and rub it around on your teeth. You can brush with it, but it's often easier on your teeth to just use a finger or a soft swab or cloth to do the work for you.
Charcoal can be very effective, but it's also a strong abrasive. That's why brushing with it isn't a good idea; it can wear down your teeth quite quickly. If you want to brush with it, limit yourself to once or twice a week. Otherwise, you can go as often as 3-4 times per week with gentle application.
Oh, and be careful; charcoal can stain things like clothes and toothbrushes.
Turmeric Teeth Whitening
Turmeric is one of the more modern miracle cures we see popping up everywhere. It's a part of a thousand different herbal remedies, many of which we promote because of their benefits. But tooth whitening? Is that even a real thing turmeric can do? After all, the vibrant yellow powder can stain as bad as coffee, so can it really un-stain your teeth?
One benefit of using turmeric is that it's pretty delicious, though using it in large quantities can be a bit intense. And, since some of the ingredients in the spice are antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, they can potentially have some beneficial effects on your gums.
The most common turmeric-based recipe for teeth whitening is 1 teaspoon of turmeric mixed into 1 tablespoon of coconut oil. This oil is pretty thick and helps make a paste-like concoction.
We've also seen some people recommend adding some baking soda to the mix, roughly about the same amount as the turmeric. We're ignoring this recipe for the purposes of this post; if turmeric only works when mixed with baking soda, it's no different than just using baking soda.
The fact is, turmeric isn't likely to be a very good tooth whitening treatment on its own. It's not abrasive enough with just oil, and it chemically doesn't have much chance to penetrate to bleach anything.
That said, turmeric is great for the fringe benefits you get from adding it to a baking soda mix instead. Studies have shown that turmeric treatments can help prevent gum disease, can remove plaque, and can help remove dental pain. Mix that with either the charcoal or the baking soda, and now you're in business.
Which is the Best Tooth Whitening Treatment?
Among the three listed above, which is the best treatment? Well, the answer is probably the baking soda. Charcoal may be similarly effective, though the cleanup is much more difficult. Turmeric, likewise, can stain everything you put it on, except your teeth. Funny how that works, right?
The best remedy, though, is not one, but all of them. Use a charcoal scrub once a week, and use a baking soda, turmeric, and either oil or water mixture another once or twice a week. This will give you some abrasive cleaning, some spice-based healing, and some time to let your teeth recover in between treatments, especially if you're using fluoride toothpaste as well. All together, these treatments can start showing you results within a month, and can get your teeth quite a bit whiter after a year of dedicated use. Is that enough for you? If so, by all means, give it a try.