Dr. Vaibhavi S. Patel

You’ve likely heard the term “pearly whites” in reference to someone’s gleaming smile. But when that smile isn’t so gleaming, some people may feel embarrassed, be hesitant to speak to others, and refuse to crack their smiles even in the happiest of occasions. If this is you, the urge to fix the problem is understandable—and you have plenty of options to consider.

The market for do-it-yourself, at-home tooth whitening has exploded, with strips and kits available at pharmacies and through online sources. Professional tooth whitening through dental practices—done either in office or through a prescription with custom teeth trays—has also grown in popularity. What are the differences between the two routes, and which is better for you as you look to improve your smile?

Difference No. 1: Convenience

Over-the-counter (OTC) at-home tooth whitening offers a high degree of convenience: you buy the kit either at the store or online and use it whenever you want, without having to schedule an appointment with your dentist and take time from your busy day to show up at the office. Even with kits you get from your dentist and use at home, some convenience is sacrificed. However, the convenience of OTC tooth whitening can be overstated, which we’ll elaborate on later.

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Difference No. 2: Cost

Whitening kits that you buy in stores or online are less expensive than professional tooth whitening, which can cost a few hundred dollars, whether done in office or with a kit prescribed from your dentist. However, OTC kits may require more than one treatment, particularly if you don’t get it right the first time—and the price will start adding up over the months and years.

Difference No. 3: Time

A great benefit of in-office tooth whitening is that it can be done in one appointment. You won’t be dealing with remembering to put your trays in at the right time, and if you want whitening for a special upcoming event, a single office visit delivers the smile you seek. In this way, in-office solutions are truly more convenient than at-home kits.

Difference No. 4: Custom color

Do-it-yourself, over-the-counter tooth whitening will lighten your teeth, but possibly not to the shade you want it, and maybe not uniformly across your smile. Prescription kits can be customized to your desired shade, and in-office whitening can ensure the color is correct and consistent throughout your mouth.

Difference No. 5: Margin of error

The DIY path to tooth whitening comes with a certain degree of risk. If the kits or strips aren’t placed exactly right, or if the directions aren’t followed properly, the consistency of the whitening may be uneven. Gel from trays could seep onto gums and cause sensitivity, or you could overdo it and have teeth that are too white. Or even worse, the whole process could fail, and you could be stuck with the teeth you had before (and out the cost).

Having your teeth whitened by a professional greatly reduces the margin of error and increases the likelihood that you’ll leave the dentist’s office with the white smile you had been dreaming of. Moreover, going through a dentist can ensure there are no problems with your teeth before the whitening procedure. Self-whitening without a proper check-up can make cavities or gum disease worse.

Difference No. 6: Long-term results

All teeth whitening is temporary, but over-the-counter options are more temporary—you may find yourself having to repeat the procedure a couple times a year (or more if you didn’t get the whitening quite right the first time). The take-home kits dentists prescribe last longer than anything you would buy in a store, and in-office whitening treatments can last as long as three years with proper care (e.g., no smoking, diligence in avoiding staining foods, and so on).

The bottom line of all these differences is that at-home, over-the-counter teeth whitening strips cost less initially and provide some convenience, but in many cases, you really are getting what you paid for. Consult your dentist to learn what option is best for you and your smile.