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The Quest for Whiter Teeth

You'd like whiter teeth. It seems a lot of people -- from movie stars to the folks next door -- are whitening their teeth. So, you say, "Why not me too?"

The experts say most of us can have whiter teeth. What's more, many of us can do it ourselves with an over-the-counter (OTC) tooth-whitening product. But before you pick a product because it comes in a pretty package, the experts have some advice:

"It's best to ask your dentist what he or she recommends," says Kimberly A. Harms, D.D.S., a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association (ADA). "You can ask about tooth-whitening products during your regular checkup. Part of your dentist's job is to give you advice."

Your dentist will tell you whether bleaching your teeth is a good idea for you and whether an OTC product will help. "If your dentist tells you an over-the-counter product won't work for you, he or she should be able to explain why that's the case," Dr. Harms adds.

The best candidates for OTC tooth whitening:

  • Don't have a lot of caps, fillings and other dental work

  • Don't have tooth stains from medication

  • Don't have dark or intense tooth stains

  • Don't have gum disease

  • Aren't sensitive to heat, cold or other sensations

Whitening agents won't work on caps, crowns, fillings and the like. "These products work only on natural teeth, so you'd have to have these prosthetics changed to match your new shade," says Ingvar Magnusson, D.D.S., Ph.D., a professor of oral biology at the University of Florida College of Dentistry who has done research in the field.

Whether you choose an OTC tooth whitener or bleaching by your dentist, one thing holds true: It's not a one-time job.

"If you want your teeth to stay whiter, it's important to follow up with bleaching on a regular basis," Dr. Harms says. "Depending on what you're looking for, you might have to follow up every six months or so."