Peroxide is a common additive in toothpastes, particularly whitening varieties. Any toothpaste that promises you a whiter smile in a reasonable window of time likely contains peroxide as an active whitening agent.
Peroxide is a chemical that most of us recognize. Diluted peroxide is in every first aid aisle of every store, and most of us know how and when to use it for wound care. Our familiarity with peroxide makes it feel comfortable and safe. Most of the time, peroxide is more helpful than harmful.
Your teeth aren’t a scrape or cut that requires first aid. So what is peroxide doing in your toothpaste? Sometimes, the remedy for a particular ailment or concern is not a one size fits all solution. Peroxide may not be as good for your teeth as it is for your skinned knee.
What Does Peroxide Do?
Peroxide works by reacting with and exchanging molecules with the things it comes into contact with. If you’re ever cut yourself shaving and dripped some blood on your white clothes or pastel colored bath towel, peroxide is invaluable. It reacts with the blood and prevents it from staining the garment, saving you a fortune on dry cleaning bills. In that regard, peroxide is fantastic.
Peroxide reacts with the surface of a wound the same way. When applied to a cut or a scrape, peroxide will interact with the first layer of tissue. It dissolves the wounded tissue and any bacteria it contains, sterilizing a wound and setting it up for a clean healing process.
Peroxide is also the active ingredient in many hair coloring products. Peroxide enters the hair, stripping its pigment and exchanging it with other pigments. A beautiful redhead can become a sultry brunette in just 45 minutes, all thanks to peroxide. When peroxide is used without pigments, anyone can become a blonde by merely stripping the pigment in their hair without replacing it.
Peroxide is inherently useful for a wide variety of things. It’s so useful that its found its way into numerous personal care, beauty, and first aid products. Among those products is your toothpaste. Due to the nature of human teeth, toothpaste may be the one place where peroxide actually doesn’t belong.
Why Put Peroxide in Toothpaste?
Most toothpaste use ingredients designed to buff away surface stains on the teeth. Stains that have penetrated the teeth and permanently altered their hue cannot be buffed away by topical whitening agents, and that’s where peroxide comes into play.
Peroxide can penetrate nearly any material and empty it of its contents, or facilitate replacing old content with new content. That’s how hair dye and stain removal work. The peroxide in your toothpaste will penetrate your teeth and remove their color. For most people, this sounds like a dream come true. We don’t want our teeth to have any type of coloring - we want them to be as close to pearly white as possible. Peroxide is a bleach for everything - including teeth and bones.
Peroxide is put into toothpaste formulas at lower concentrations and whitening treatments at higher concentration. Whitening strips that stick to the teeth keep them surrounded in peroxide gel for the duration of a treatment. Whitening gels applied with convenient pens or into dental trays work to do the same thing. The teeth are allowed to sit in a peroxide mixture for a prolonged period of time to facilitate this exchange that removes stains from the interior of the tooth.
Most cosmetic whitening treatments performed by dentists use extremely strong concentrations of peroxide - much stronger than the products you’ll find on the store shelves. The results are immediate and noticeable. Peroxide absolutely works to whiten teeth. The question is to whether the ends justify the means.
The Consequences of Peroxide in Toothpaste
Peroxide highly relies on your teeth becoming porous. Enamel is the hardest substance your body is capable of creating, and peroxide needs to penetrate that substance in order to whiten your teeth from the inside out. While peroxide is technically a topical remedy, it is the farthest thing from a non-invasive solution.
As a result of the exchange of molecules through the vulnerable porous spots of the teeth, many people experience heightened sensitivity after using peroxide whitening products. Even the air can send a painful tingle through the teeth after a particularly strong peroxide whitening treatment. If you experience painful sensitivity as a result of peroxide toothpastes or whitening treatments, stop using them. There are other ways to approach tooth whitening that don’t involve pain.
Even if you aren’t experiencing pain as a result of peroxide based whitening treatments, you can still be doing damage. Over time, high concentrations of peroxide will damage tooth enamel. Damaged enamel can never be fully repaired. Even dentists prefer to bond teeth or use veneers to cover teeth with weakened enamel, as lost enamel puts teeth in the position of perpetual and irreversible damage.
If you choose to use peroxide whitening products, do not use them for longer than intended. Always follow the instructions down to the letter, and avoid using more than one course of treatment per year. You might also want to use a remineralizing toothpaste to help restore minerals the enamel has lost as a result of becoming porous.
Making Your Own Tooth Whitening Treatment
If you understand the risks and would still like to attempt to whiten your teeth with peroxide, it’s a better idea to take a softer approach. Reducing the concentration of the peroxide and the duration of the treatments will minimize the negative impact that these treatments will have on your enamel.
People who experience discomfort and sensitivity as a result of highly concentrated peroxide whitening treatments may not experience the same sensitivity if they use peroxide at lower concentrations for shorter periods of time.
For decades, the preferred home remedy for tooth whitening involves two common household products: the same 3% or less peroxide dilution used for wound care, and run of the mill baking soda. When peroxide and baking soda are mixed, they foam up just a little bit, creating mildly gritty sudsy bubbles.
The combination of the mildly abrasive texture of the baking soda in conjunction with the bleaching effect of peroxide can help to remove stains both inside of and outside of the tooth. Using peroxide and baking soda for a 30 second gentle brushing will have a mild whitening effect that slowly develops over time, making it a gentler alternative for sensitive teeth.
Whitening Teeth Without Peroxide
Natural whitening toothpastes typically won’t contain peroxide. Instead, they’ll use mild abrasives like baking soda or charcoal to help gently buff away surface stains. Ingredients like hydrated silica are derived from natural sources and act as mineral whiteners for the teeth. Some natural toothpastes utilize probiotics that neutralize impurities in the mouth that can lead to surface stains, mitigating the stains that currently exist and preventing them from getting worse.
Are Whitening Toothpastes Without Peroxide Equally as Effective?
Whitening toothpastes that do not contain peroxide will still whiten your teeth, but they don’t provide the same kind of instant gratification that peroxide based whitening products can provide. If you’re extremely impatient, you’re probably going to have a difficult time waiting to see the extent of your results.
The end result will be a more natural white - sort of a soft shade of off white. Brilliant and vibrant true white teeth only come as a result of peroxide treatments. Natural teeth will never be the same shade of white that comes from bleaching. A small amount of a yellowish pigment naturally exists in healthy teeth, and natural whitening toothpastes will have little to not impact on that pigment. They’ll only work to remove surface stains.
If it helps, take before and after pictures of your teeth in natural lighting. Take one photo before you start. Since these toothpastes work gradually, you’re likely to notice the difference that will come in tiny increments. Brush your teeth for two minutes in the morning and at night. After a full month of use, take another picture in natural lighting. When you compare the before and after photos, the contrast will show you the results.
Peroxide is highly effective at whitening teeth, but the bleaching power of peroxide does not come without consequence. If you have weakened enamel or are concerned with weakening your healthy enamel, it’s best to avoid peroxide entirely. While it may not be as rapidly satisfying to use toothpastes with alternative whitening ingredients, the compromise may be better for your teeth in the long term.
You only have one layer of enamel, and when it’s gone, you aren’t getting anymore. Take the best care of it that you possibly can. Shiny white teeth right now is not worth eroded and crumbling teeth in the long run. A little patience can keep your mouth healthy for decades to come.