Should I Whiten My Preteen’s Teeth?

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Movies, magazines, and social media are rife with sparkling, bright white smiles. Plus, tooth bleaching products are widely available over-the-counter (OTC) and at dentist offices.

This extensive marketing, as well as easy accessibility, encourages lots of preteens and teens to whiten their teeth—and even more to wonder if they should. Many young people worry about the relative whiteness of their teeth and may feel self-conscious about their smiles.

However, this growing desire among preteens and teens leads many parents to question whether or not it's recommended—or wise—to whiten children's teeth. Learn how to decide when and if your child should bleach their pearly whites.

What Is Teeth Whitening?

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), teeth whitening products use one of two tooth bleaches—hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide—to break down stains. This process removes discoloration and makes teeth look brighter.

There are a variety of whitening options. These options include bleaching treatments at the dentist's office, prescribed bleaching treatments for at-home use, over-the-counter (OTC) products, and whitening toothpaste.

The strength of the bleaching solution in different products varies greatly, so be sure to read labels carefully. You also should talk with your dentist to determine which product is the best fit for your child's needs.

Dental Office Treatments

Generally, the strongest treatments are those done in a dentist's office, and can provide the most rapid results, says Mary Hayes, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Chicago, Illinois, and a spokesperson for the ADA.

Dentists may use trays similar to what you get in OTC products or they may paint the solution onto each tooth. Your dentist will adjust the type, strength, and application of the bleaching agent to fit your child's needs.

Results from in-dentist office bleaching often come quicker, with fewer applications, but tend to be the most expensive option, says Jean Beauchamp, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Clarksville, Tennessee, and the president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD).

Similarly, treatments purchased directly from a dentist for at-home use are more likely to be tailored specifically to your child's teeth. But, keep in mind, they will likely use a less potent bleach solution and require more applications for similar results, says Dr. Hayes.

Jean Beauchamp, DDS

My advice is to get guidance from your dentist on deciding whether or not to do teeth bleaching and for choosing the best whitening product for your child.

— Jean Beauchamp, DDS

Over-the-Counter Products and Pastes

OTC products are also effective and come in a variety of strengths. These products may not fit as comfortably or easily as those offered by a dentist but can still achieve good results, says Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, DDS, a pediatric dentist practicing in Augusta, Maine, and an ADA spokesperson.

"At-home products are not necessarily tailored to your specific mouth," explains Dr. Shenkin.

However, these products can be a convenient, less costly option. Another option for at-home use is whitening toothpaste.

Whitening toothpaste offers some improvement in whiteness and has few side effects. As long as these pastes also contain fluoride, they're usually OK for preteens to use occasionally, even if they still have a few baby teeth, says Dr. Hayes.

When Is Teeth Whitening Appropriate?

Generally, dentists discourage the use of tooth whitening treatments by children until all their permanent teeth are in. This timing varies among children.

Some children can be as young as around 11 to 12 years old when they have all their permanent teeth, says Dr. Beauchamp. However, some children don't get all their adult teeth until much later.

"[In fact], some kids may not lose all their baby teeth until age 16," says Dr. Hayes.

Generally, you should wait until your child is 14 or older to try teeth whitening. At that point, the vast majority of teens will already have all their adult teeth.

There may be some specific situations, such as a pronounced stain on a specific tooth, in which a younger child can benefit from bleaching, says Dr. Beauchamp. But for the most part, whitening should be avoided in preteens.

Jonathan Shenkin, DDS

Dentists are reluctant to do teeth whitening with young people because their teeth are not fully mineralized.

— Jonathan Shenkin, DDS

Once teeth erupt in the mouth, it still takes time for the enamel to fully develop, so it's often best to wait. Even if all the permanent teeth have come in, waiting longer may reduce the risk of side effects, he says.

Also, consider whether or not your teen or preteen's teeth really need whitening. Just because tooth whitening is available or offered to them, doesn't mean your child actually needs it. So, it's important to also evaluate whether or not your child's teeth are truly discolored.

"Many people think their teeth are darker than they really are," explains Dr. Hayes.

Kids often think they need whitening because of natural differences in tooth color or simply because other teens are doing it. Your child's dentist can offer objective feedback on whether your child's teeth are stained or darker than expected.

Possible Adverse Effects

The most common complication of tooth whitening is tooth sensitivity, says Dr. Beauchamp. In fact, tooth sensitivity from bleaching treatments is quite common.

Sensitivity can vary from minor irritation to a very uncomfortable feeling that can last from days or weeks afterward. In most cases, this sensation is short-lived and will fade over time.

Mary Hayes, DDS

For some people, tooth whitening can really hurt.

— Mary Hayes, DDS

The chemicals used to whiten the teeth react with the nerves of the teeth as well as the gum tissue around them, causing pain or heightened sensitivity, explains Dr. Shenkin. However, it's uncommon for whitening to be acutely painful.

What's more, young people tend to have more sensitive mouths, he adds. So, it's often recommended to start out with less strong solutions and then work your way up, as needed.

Other Considerations

Deciding when and if your child should do teeth whitening involves multiple steps, including looking at their dental hygiene habits and the actual color of their teeth. To make sure teeth whitening is appropriate, effective, and safe for your child, keep these considerations in mind.

Dental Hygiene

The first-line approach for teeth whitening is regular brushing and dentist visits. Plaque build-up dulls the teeth, making them appear less bright, says Dr. Beauchamp. Discoloration also comes from eating or drinking dark foods, such as colas or coffee.

Kids who are concerned about the color of their teeth should start by taking a look at their dental hygiene habits and avoiding dark foods. Thoroughly brushing with fluoride toothpaste twice daily and flossing regularly also can make a big difference.

Baby Versus Adult Teeth

Most children already have very white teeth—but may not realize it. The slight difference in color between the permanent teeth, which tend to be darker, and baby teeth, which are brighter and whiter, can create an optical illusion that makes people think that their child's adult teeth are discolored even when they're not, explains Dr. Hayes.

This issue is especially pronounced when permanent teeth and baby teeth are side-by-side in the front of the smile. However, by and large, dentists recommend patience. Once the adult teeth are all in, the smile usually looks brighter, even if the natural color is slightly darker than it was with a mouth full of baby teeth.

Natural Teeth Color

It's important to note that there are huge variations in natural tooth color, including a range of tones of white, ivory, yellowish, gray, and cream. Tooth color matches complexion to a certain extent, so the same shade of white won't necessarily look right on each person, explains Dr. Hayes. Plus, the wrong one can look artificial.

"Rather than giving everyone paper white teeth, what people really want is to brighten their teeth and make their smile look good," says Dr. Hayes.

Additionally, it's important to find out why kids want whiter teeth. Sometimes when kids ask about tooth whitening, there is an underlying self-esteem issue that needs to be addressed as well. Make sure you know why your child wants to whiten their teeth because there may be other issues present.

Safety

If your child is whitening at home, monitor how long they keep the product on their teeth and how often they use it. Also, make sure the product instructions are being followed closely.

Supervising them is especially important because extreme overuse can cause significant damage to the teeth, says Dr. Beauchamp. Generally, once adult teeth are in, teeth whitening is safe as long as you follow the product's guidelines and supervise their use.

When treatments are done in the dentist's office, the dentist will ensure that the bleaching agent is used safely and limit the chance of adverse impacts. But, parents should recognize that professional solutions tend to be stronger and any sensitivity that a young person feels may be more intense, explains Dr. Hayes.

Braces

You also should consider whether your child will be getting braces or using retainers. Most dentists recommend waiting until after orthodontics treatments are complete before using tooth whitening products. This way, you will get the best results.

"My suggestion is always to wait to do bleaching until children are done with orthodontics—right after the braces come off is a great time to do it," advises Dr. Beauchamp.

Efficacy

Tooth whitening treatments, whether done in-office or at home, tend to effectively lighten the teeth by several shades. Plus, studies show that in-home and in-dentist office treatments offer comparable results when used appropriately, so either option can be highly successful.

Have a dentist diagnose the reason for the discoloration because bleaching will only work under certain circumstances. Plus, you'll want to make sure your expectations are realistic and that the timing is right.

"Get guidance from a dentist because whether or not bleaching works depends on what's causing the stain or discoloration," says Dr. Beauchamp,

Tooth whitening treatments offer the best results when brightening discoloration from surface staining. But, they are not necessarily effective for other types of issues, such as yellowing or graying due to a tooth injury or the result of taking a medication, such as antibiotics.

A Word From Verywell

Once your child has all their permanent teeth, tooth bleaching can be a safe, effective option for whitening their teeth. However, make sure you know what you are looking for and the best way to get those results.

Also, consider if your child may benefit from more regular brushing. They may not really need treatments at all. Reach out to your child's dentist with any questions. They can provide personalized suggestions on the best strategies and products for teeth whitening for your preteen or teen.

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Article Sources
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