Teeth whitening can be a very controversial subject, especially as in 2012, the UK law changed to make it illegal for: "Anyone other than a dentist to give treatment, advice or attendance that would normally be given by a dentist." This includes teeth whitening treatments.
You can buy teeth whitening toothpaste, and this is perfectly legal because the concentration of the active ingredients is so low, it can be sold over the counter.
What does the law say about teeth whitening?
With relation to the concentration of hydrogen peroxide present or released; anything less than 0.1% is safe over the counter. Anything between 0.1% and 6% can only be prescribed by a dentist.
In addition to this, the act of teeth whitening is considered a dental treatment, and should therefore only be prescribed by a dentist.
Loop holes in the law… well, sort of!
As we have all seen, teeth whitening is often carried out in shopping centres and beauty salons, so why is this, and how do they get around the law?
The truth is that they are in fact breaking the law, and until recently they have been getting away with it.
One common misconception is that if the person selling the teeth whitening is not touching the customer, then they are not performing dentistry. They give all the gel to the customer, and the customer will ‘self administer’ the whitening. This is a common belief, however if you read what is in the first paragraph again:
It is illegal for "anyone other than a dentist to give treatment, advice or attendance that would normally be given by a dentist".
It is clear that even if someone is offering you teeth whitening without actually touching you, they are breaking the law. And this seems fair, if someone gave you acid and said it was teeth whitening gel, then when things went wrong, their response was "but you did it yourself, I didn't put it on your teeth!"
So, what if they do not use hydrogen peroxide, and use something completely different?
This has been done as well, Chlorine Dioxide has been used with scary consequences – This is an extremely acidic chemical and quickly strips the healthy enamel off the teeth. With this treatment, your teeth will go lovely and white for a few days, but after about a week, they tend to go a nice shade of brown. You can read a story of someone who had a £5000 dental bill after chlorine dioxide treatment here.
Is the problem beyond the Beauty Salons?
Beauty salon owners are being sold systems by companies, promising massive profits on their sales. MegaWhite is one such company, and if you look at their website, all the text is focused on how much money the salon owner could make by selling the MegaWhite product.
Here is a recent story of how a salon owner bought into the MegaWhite brand, only to find out that it was illegal, plus MegaWhite's response to this.
Cheap Tooth Whitening
I personally think that these days, the biggest risk with teeth whitening is the risk to your wallet! Many of the cheap systems use a whitening gel which simply does not work, but you may see visible results – so why is this?
Often when I am doing dental treatments for a long time, the teeth appear whiter at the end of treatment and this is because the teeth dehydrate. With most of these cheap systems, you are asked to put a gel on your teeth, and hold your mouth open in front of a light. This light is supposed speed up the reaction.
If you just had your mouth open for 30-40 minutes, then your teeth would probably look whiter, just from the dehydration. This is only temporary and after a day or so, they will be back to their original colour. That’s a nice £100 down the drain, and because they were whiter when you left the salon, it’s almost impossible to get your money back!
If you see a professional
So we have covered a lot of the negative aspects around whitening, here is the positive bit – you can have safer and more reliable teeth whitening if you see a registered dentist. It will probably be a bit more expensive, but you get what you pay for.
There are two ways to whiten your teeth, either with a home whitening system, where you have customised teeth whitening trays made, and you are supplied with a gel of whitening agent, shown how to apply this gel, and then go home, self administer this for a few weeks, then come back for a review to ensure that you have the result you are looking for.
The other way is with the light, and this is done in the surgery. The biggest brand name for this is Zoom, and this treatment often takes 1-2 hours.
Each dentist will have a system that seems to work best for them, my personal preference is the home kit, and I provide two different concentration gels to minimise sensitivity and maximise results. Quite often desensitising before whitening is needed to make the whole procedure as comfortable as possible.
Teeth whitening doesn't last forever, so the maintenance is discussed prior to treatment, and as a dentist is prescribing the treatment, he or she can spot potential problem areas before you start treatment.