Salon and kiosk services
With little or no training and an outlay of a few thousand dollars for an activating light and bleaching equipment, entrepreneurs can establish a lucrative little money earner in hair and beauty salons, shopping centre kiosks, or even mobile home-based teeth whitening parties.
Typically costing less than $200, it's cheaper than a similar process provided by a dentist. However, the industry is unregulated and the practitioners have no dental training. Potential problems include lack of proper infection control, careless application or ill-fitting bleaching trays, causing irritation to gums and lips, and using bleaching products that are too strong, too acidic or left on for too long.
Practitioners are unable to advise on whether the process is appropriate for someone (some kinds of discolouration don’t respond to certain treatments), and they’re not qualified to check for problems such as cracked enamel, cavities, restorations and exposed root surfaces that need special care. In most cases, however, the worst outcome will be temporarily sore gums and sensitive teeth. There have been no reported cases of permanent tooth damage, although the industry is in its early days.
Dentists have accused these operators of illegally practising dentistry. However, the beauticians exploit a legal loophole by asking the patient to insert the trays in the mouth themselves (so they're not touching the teeth), and in turn accuse dentists of trying to protect business interests.
The Australian Cosmetic Tooth Whitening Association (ACTWA) is a self-regulated industry association whose members agree to a code of conduct that specifies a maximum bleaching strength of 12% hydrogen peroxide and a limit to power bleaching (the use of a light) of no more than 20 minutes in a 24 hour period.
In-office dentist whitening services
The main advantage of dentists over cosmeticians is that they’re qualified to assess the status of your teeth, including taking a dental history, which may have a bearing on the treatment they’re prepared to give you. They can also assess and redress underlying problems causing discolouration.
They’re more likely to offer custom-fitted bleaching trays, which means better control of the bleach and less gum irritation. However, they’re likely to be a lot more expensive – around $1000, give or take a few hundred dollars – which for many people is the main disadvantage.
What is 'power bleaching'?
Strong hydrogen peroxide bleach (up to 38% hydrogen peroxide) is placed in trays and fitted to your teeth, and the bleaching effect is often enhanced with the use of a light or heat source, such as laser, LED or halogen lamps.
In general, the stronger the product and the longer the contact, the whiter the results. However, teeth are also likely to be more sensitive afterwards. Using light or heat to enhance the effect of the bleach appears to have a greater whitening effect than bleach alone. However, much of this extra effect appears to be due to dehydration of the tooth, and the colour will darken slightly as the tooth rehydrates.
The effects of power bleaching are immediate, but more than one treatment may be needed to get the desired results. It’s not uncommon for an initial treatment at the dental surgery to be followed up with further treatment or maintenance at home.
Power bleaching is offered by dentists and cosmetic entrepreneurs. Have realistic expectations – many model and celebrity photos have teeth digitally whitened. Teeth shouldn’t be whiter than the whites of your eyes.
Tips and traps
- Avoid staining your teeth with tea, coffee, red wine, cola and smoking for a couple of days after whitening (which may mean giving up for a few weeks for longer-term treatments).
- Bleach won’t whiten caps, crowns or fillings, and these may need to be replaced if they no longer match the rest of your teeth.
- Your teeth may need re-whitening after a couple of years or so.