Do Teeth Whitening Strips Ruin Your Teeth? Here Are Some Alternatives To Try

Having a good smile is huge for your confidence. Americans put a high value on a bright, white smile, especially in the business and entertainment industries. But even if we just want to clean up our pearly whites with some easy whitening strips, are those actually helping or just hurting our teeth? There’s only so much protective enamel on our teeth before it’s worn off…

By Anna Hugoboom4 min read
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Shutterstock/Maria Markevich

The short answer is yes, whitening strips do damage your tooth enamel. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve used teeth whitening strips before to clean up my teeth. But then I started looking into the strips’ ingredients more, as well as the effects of continued teeth whitening, and let’s say I wouldn’t continue using them if I wanted dental longevity! 

Americans have spent over a billion dollars on teeth whitening strips and other whitening products. The majority of the time, these products are simply quick fixes to the problem and include damaging chemicals as a solution. Now, whitening strips are ok to use once in a blue moon, like before heading to a job interview, a first date, or a photo shoot, when you want a little smile touch-up to make a good impression. But what will our teeth look like down the road if we’re continually applying chemicals to our teeth and stripping off the outer layers, bit by bit? 

The Cons of Whitening Strips

Your teeth contain three layers: the outer enamel, the dentin, and the innermost layer of connective tissue that connects your teeth to your gums. There are two reasons why natural alternatives offer better options: 1) frequent and even semi-frequent use of whitening strips will wear away your teeth’s outer protective layer of enamel, and 2) your inner dentin layer is damaged and weakened over time. 

Teeth whitening strips often contain highly concentrated amounts of hydrogen peroxide and chlorine dioxide (which is an acidic bleach used to clean pools), both of which will damage not only your enamel but also your dentin layer. Dentist John T. Grbic says concentrated amounts of hydrogen peroxide will oxidize dentin proteins, causing tooth sensitivity – which is why your teeth feel tingly or sensitive after using chemical whitening products! It’s not so much an issue of short-term use with diluted amounts, but frequent and long-term use will cause tooth damage. Using whitening strips won’t ruin your teeth if just used every once in a rare, rare while, but make sure they don’t contain chlorine dioxide and brush your teeth before applying, not right after.  

Teeth whitening strips often contain chlorine dioxide, an acidic bleach used to clean pools.

Why the Stains?

Our teeth can get stained from exposure to dark-colored, acidic foods like tomato-based sauce, red wine, and coffee; spinach and curry can also stain teeth. Substances high in tannins have a stripping effect that causes wear and tear on tooth enamel; red wine and even some herbal teas contain tannins. Smoking will also cause tooth stains and even tooth weakening; most longtime smokers have yellowish, stained teeth, and some lose their teeth after a while. The smoke residue stains the teeth, especially with cigars (tobacco stains are no joke). 

What To Do?

So, you may ask, how can we clean up our smiles without wrecking our teeth? For starters, consistently brush your teeth. Brush immediately after eating, especially after coffee, red wine, tea, spinach, and curry. It might seem like a hassle, but your efforts will pay off in the end! Use a softer head toothbrush, as hard brushes are rougher on enamel. 

When drinking acidic liquids like red wine, coffee, tomato/lemon juice, and tea you can minimize tooth contact by mindfully drinking these liquids with a straw. 

Furthermore, don’t smoke or use tobacco products, or if you do already, then stop. Save yourself the stains as well as the cancer risks.

Another proactive thing you can do is to consume consistent amounts of vitamin C! You know how sailors would avoid scurvy by eating lemons and limes? This is because vitamin C (found in citrus fruits) is essential for gum strengthening and will benefit your teeth. However, vitamin C foods are highly acidic and can hurt enamel over time, and overconsuming can cause other problems. Take vitamin C in supplement form and limit direct tooth exposure. Don’t brush your teeth immediately after eating citrus since teeth are weakest after exposure to citrus but wait 30 minutes.

You can also eat foods high in malic acid, which acts as a natural bleaching agent and increases saliva, which protects against tooth decay. These foods include strawberries and watermelon. Also, eat foods high in proteolytic enzymes, which break down proteins and fight tooth decay. Pineapple (which is also acidic, so limit quantities) contains the proteolytic enzyme bromelain, and papaya contains papain, which also breaks down proteins, reduces stains, and helps prevent plaque formation. 

And lastly, use natural whitening alternatives in lieu of teeth whitening strips. Natural whitening remedies will take longer to produce effects, but better a slow and sure way to keep stronger teeth rather than quickly bleaching and weakening your teeth with a cheap and toxic product for a fast result. Americans have an impatient habit of wanting fast results and opt for methods that aren’t always the healthiest route (fast food, eating takeout on the go, popping a pill for symptom relief, etc.). 

Baking soda is probably the most popular way to naturally whiten your smile.

Natural Whitening Alternatives To Use

Natural whitening alternatives include ingredients such as baking soda, diluted hydrogen peroxide, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, turmeric, and activated charcoal. Now, even though some of these options may sound weird and gross, they do have dental benefits! 

  • Hydrogen peroxide is a tooth-whitening alternative that shows relatively fast results. Dentists say it is safe to use but only when used in low concentrations and limited doses. You must dilute it with water; too strong a concentration can damage teeth. Do not use often, as it can cause tooth sensitivity. It can be used as a mouthwash or mixed with baking soda as a paste.

  • Though its results are slow, apple cider vinegar helps to naturally whiten teeth, is enamel-safe and relatively cheap, and can be mixed in a paste or rinsed as a mouthwash.

  • Coconut oil is an ancient Ayurvedic tooth cleanser in Eastern traditional medicine. It helps remove plaque and has cleansing and whitening agents. It can be mixed into a paste or used as a mouthwash. 

  • Turmeric has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, prevents plaque buildup, and also benefits gum health and prevents gum disease, gingivitis, and gum inflammation. Mix with baking soda and coconut oil as a toothpaste.

  • Last but definitely not least, baking soda is a great natural teeth whitener, is a mild abrasive, and is probably the most popular way to naturally whiten your smile. Just don’t use it every day, as it may cause wear on enamel over time; use 3-4 times per week at most. You can brush with it on your toothpaste (or by itself), or make a paste combining it with coconut oil, activated charcoal, or apple cider vinegar and/or turmeric.

Now, you don’t always have to make a DIY paste to have a natural option. Some healthy toothpaste options include some of the above ingredients: Burt’s Bees has an activated charcoal toothpaste, and Tom’s has a fluoride-free toothpaste that has baking soda. Just watch out for fluoride: Fluoride is a highly toxic chemical, and even though we spit the toothpaste out, some residue might still be swallowed (this especially is a concern for young children). 

Closing Thoughts

Yes, teeth whitening strips might seem like the most convenient and quickest way to achieve a shiny, white smile, but your health deserves investment, be it time, money, or effort. Natural alternatives actually end up being the less expensive option, though they often take longer to show results, but slow and sure results for the long run are better than a quick fix that has negative side effects later! Plus, you’ll eventually have to spend more money to correct those problems caused by weakened teeth (cavities, decay, tooth loss), so you might as well invest a bit more effort and time now with a positive goal of strengthening as well as whitening. 

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