A bright, white smile is a major confidence-booster, especially during teen years. But what if your child needs a little help in that department? These days, increasing numbers of parents are turning to professional teeth-bleaching treatments to help their teens look and feel their best.
Parents in search of professional-strength teeth whitening treatments for their kids can find them at kiosks springing up at malls and salons. They’re staffed with official-looking personnel in lab coats or scrubs, but most have little or no medical training to help them administer the powerful bleaching chemicals they sell.
This trend has dental experts concerned, because the chemicals used to whiten teeth are potentially caustic, says Paul S. Casamassimo, D.D.S., M.S., chief of dentistry at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Misusing these powerful chemical agents can harm gum tissue, injure tooth nerves and pulp, increase tooth sensitivity and interfere with plastic and composite fillings.
Don’t reach for the bleach until you read up on how to protect your child’s choppers.
Rooting out the problem
Your child’s dentist can tell you whether he or she is a good candidate for teeth whitening. According to the American Dental Association’s Mouth Healthy website, whitening products are meant for natural tooth enamel – and won’t work on fillings, crowns or veneers. And sensitive teeth, cavities and tooth decay, cracked teeth and gum disease should be addressed before bleaching, because whitening treatments can exacerbate these problems, leading to unneeded pain.
A dentist can also diagnose the reasons teeth may not be their whitest. Teeth can be darker because of injury, dental treatment, vitamins, iron supplements, decay or antibiotic treatment. It’s also possible that perceived discoloration isn’t really discoloration at all, and just a reflection of the natural variations in human tooth coloring. Natural teeth are rarely perfectly white, Casamassimo says.
Parents should hold off on bleaching treatments until their child has a full set of permanent teeth, usually by age 12 or 13. Some dentists, including Carolyn Taggart-Burns, D.D.S. in Nebraska, who’s also served as a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry, recommend waiting even longer. Children should wait until they are in their mid-teens before considering any kind of whitening procedures, she notes, because their teeth will have fully erupted and tooth pulp will be fully formed.
Consider your options
Often, only one or two teeth show signs of discoloration. In those cases, a dentist can safely treat only the affected tooth or area with abrasion or single-tooth treatments. These targeted tactics minimize the impact on gums and surrounding teeth and can be less costly than a full-mouth treatment.
You can also consider over-the-counter products like whitening toothpaste, floss and the popular whitening strips sold in drugstores for a cost-effective alternative to professional bleaching treatments. When used properly, they can be a safe option.
Of course, because these products aren’t marketed for children, parents should employ caution, commonsense and proper supervision when using them.
One of the biggest concerns about teeth bleaching is the potential harm to children’s gum tissue. Over time, bleaching chemicals can cause major gum irritation and pain. There is evidence that bleaching chemicals can cause cellular changes to the gums, Casamassimo adds.
To mitigate any potential gum damage, parents should make an effort to reduce the amount of bleaching chemicals on their child’s gums. Custom-made bleaching trays ordered from a dentist’s office can minimize the contact between the gums and the bleaching agent and lessen the chance for irritation.
For superior safety, Taggart-Burns recommends parents entrust their kids’ teeth to a trained dentist. “Dentists are not only trained in the bleaching treatment systems, but the biological and chemical effects of bleach to the teeth,” she says. “They are also trained to resolve any problems a patient may experience.”
This post was originally published in 2016 and is updated regularly.