Whitening Toothpaste: How Effective Is It?

Everyone wants a beautiful white smile. Whitening toothpastes seem to promise that smile without any extra effort on your part. You have to brush your teeth anyway. You might as well use a toothpaste that will work double duty to deliver you the pearly whites you’ve always wanted.

More skeptical consumers are less quick to believe that whitening toothpastes really do what they promise. After all, if it were that easy, wouldn’t everyone have a perfect smile? Skeptics are right to be hesitant, but maybe not for the reasons they think. Whitening toothpastes do contain ingredients proven to whiten teeth, but the results come at a cost.

What Are Extrinsic Stains?

Extrinsic, like external, means outside. Stains on the outside of your teeth are stains that sit on your enamel. These stains can come from smoking, drinking coffee, drinking red wine, or frequently ingesting highly acidic foods and drinks. 

Every toothpaste contains some kind of abrasive agent - even gentle, sensitive, or mild toothpastes. These abrasives are small particles that, when brushed against the teeth with your toothbrush, help to loosen and buff away extrinsic stains. They also help to remove tartar or plaque buildup. 

What Are Intrinsic Stains?

Intrinsic, like internal, means inside. Stains inside of your teeth happen when the same things that cause extrinsic stains seep through porous or weakened enamel to discolor the tooth itself, rather than the tooth’s surface. 

Intrinsic stains cannot be buffed away by abrasive agents. When your teeth are intrinsically stained, you have very few effective solutions to that problem. One of the only things you can do is use a harsh dental whitening agent that will effectively bleach the stains out of your teeth. This process has the potential to be highly problematic for your overall dental health.

Ingredients Like Peroxide

The most popular dental bleaching agent is peroxide. Peroxide, just like the kind in your first aid kit, sanitizes the things it comes into contact with. It also deeply penetrates surfaces, isolates particles, and removes them. In essence, peroxide is designed to take pigments out of things.

If you’ve ever bleached or dyed your hair, you’ve done so with peroxide. Peroxide aggressively penetrates hair shafts and empties them of their pigment in the case of hair bleaching products. It replaces them with different pigments when the hair is being colored. 

Clearly, peroxide works. If it didn’t, everyone would be walking around with dirty wounds, stained teeth, and the hair color they were born with. If you’ve ever dyed your hair, you know that bleaching and dyeing are damaging processes that can leave your hair brittle or make it break off at irregular lengths. This is the same substance you’re using to change the color of your teeth.

Breaking off your hair or damaging it isn’t pleasant or desirable, but the worst case scenario isn’t so bad. You can easily disguise breakage, treat your hair with conditioner, and wait for it to grow back. Your enamel doesn’t work the same way. If your enamel is damaged or deteriorating, that’s the final state of your enamel. Your body won’t ever produce more. The only place for your enamel to go is down, and that should give you the incentive you need to be careful with it. 

What Whitening Toothpaste Does

Whitening toothpaste uses peroxide as an intrinsic whitening agent and an abrasive agent (sometimes baking soda) as an extrinsic whitening agent. Ingredients like baking soda are fairly safe for your teeth. Baking soda is among the gentlest abrasive agents. 

Dentists use something called the RDA scale. RDA stands for relative dental abrasivity. This scale measures how abrasive toothpastes are. Ideally, you want a toothpaste that is at an RDA rating somewhere around or below 70. Baking soda on its own is rated at a 7, which is virtually nothing. 

Most whitening toothpastes contain peroxide that works in conjunction with an abrasive to clean the teeth. The peroxide makes its way through the enamel to the inside of the tooth, trapping the source of the stain and removing the pigment from your teeth. 

The concentration of peroxide in whitening toothpastes is relatively so, so results don’t come instantly. Most toothpastes will tell you when to expect to see your results. “Whiter teeth in ten days!” or “A bright smile in two weeks!” are usually the indicator of how much peroxide is in the product. The faster the promised result, the more peroxide will be needed to achieve that result. 

In the end, you’re left with very white and significantly weaker teeth. All that peroxide will take a serious toll on your enamel. Every shade your teeth are lightened is an irreversible blow to your enamel. 

What Dentist Whitening Treatments Do

Dentist whitening treatments also use peroxide based lightening agents. These treatments are designed to be delivered by a professional. Their concentration of peroxide is significantly higher than than of whitening toothpastes. At home whitening kits, like pens, strips, and gels that sometimes come with lights or trays, fall somewhere in the middle.

Some advanced dental bleaching treatments are super charged, with many patients achieving their desired level of tooth whitening after a single treatment. 

More or less, whitening treatments delivered by a dentist are extremely boosted versions of whitening toothpaste or at-home whitening treatments that deliver quick results to those with significantly stained teeth or to people who are a little too impatient to wait for slower results. 

The Side Effects to Tooth Whitening

One of the most common side effects of all tooth whitening products, from pastes to costly cosmetic whitening treatments, is tooth sensitivity. The enamel protecting the tooth is diminished, so the tooth is essentially exposed to the elements. Hot or cold drinks can create severe jolts of pain. A breeze of cold air can make your whole mouth sting.

In addition to the pain of heightened sensitivity, the teeth are also significantly weaker. They’re more susceptible to future staining, erosion, or decay. Their protective barrier is all but entirely gone after aggressive whitening. This makes the entire mouth a painful chore that’s difficult to keep up with. When the stains come back, you’ll need more bleaching. It creates a cycle of perpetual damage that will eventually take an immeasurable toll on the teeth. 

Which Is Better?

If you must choose between whitening toothpastes, whitening treatments, or cosmetic whitening procedures, the gentlest of the three would be whitening toothpastes. The concentration of peroxide in toothpastes is far lower, so these products won’t cause a significant negative impact right out of the gate. If you notice mild sensitivity after using whitening toothpaste, it’s easy to stop. It won’t leave lingering discomfort like a more powerful whitening product. 

Alternatives to Whitening Toothpaste

The best thing for whitening your teeth is the simple management of surface stains and great oral hygiene products. Flossing before bed, brushing twice a day for two minutes each time, and using a mouthwash that will fight bacteria will give you a clean mouth. It also helps to avoid highly acidic food or drinks, or food or drinks that have strong staining capabilities (like wine or coffee). 

Good practices that are consistently applied will deliver slow and real results. Your teeth won’t be blindingly white, but that’s perfectly fine. Enamel has a white hue. The layer of your teeth beneath the enamel, called dentin, is yellow. Enamel becomes naturally more translucent over time, and the yellow hue of the dentin begins to shine through. Natural teeth are always just little off-white, even when they’re extremely clean and extraordinarily healthy. It helps to remember that for a good frame of reference. 

If your teeth are deeply stained and damaged, whitening toothpaste or whitening treatments aren’t an option for you. You might want to consider solutions like crowns, extractions and implants, or veneers. These treatments seal the natural tooth beneath another surface, preventing further damage and complications.

These treatments and procedures are a lot more expensive than a tube of toothpaste or a cosmetic whitening treatment, but they’re also more thorough. When all is said and done, your smile will be white and your teeth will be protected from further damage.


The best way to have white teeth is to take very good care of them consistently throughout your life. Very few of us make it into adulthood with perfect pearly whites. If you choose to use a whitening toothpaste, it will work at a cost to your enamel. Try to limit your dependency on them. Using a whitening toothpaste in the evening and a remineralizing toothpaste in the morning may help to fortify your teeth, reducing the uncomfortable sensitivity that often arises from the continuous use of whitening products.

Don’t let good be the enemy of perfect. As soon as you notice a subtle whitening effect that brings your teeth to a natural shade of off-white, put your whitening toothpaste away for a few months. You can always come back to it if and when stains begin to appear. Catching them early will reduce your need to depend on peroxide based whitening products for extended periods of time. 

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