Buzzword: Teeth bleachorexia

November 23, 2009, 9:00 am

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What does it mean? The compulsion for ever-whiter teeth.

Why the buzz? Americans have been snapping up at-home tooth whitening kits. We spent $343 million in 2008 on these products, which claim to give you a brighter smile in a week or so. And they can brighten teeth somewhat, our tooth whitener tests show. But how much tooth bleaching is too much? Can a person overdo it by wearing teeth whitening strips or trays too often?

The American Dental Association thinks so. While tooth whiteners may seem as innocuous as toothpaste, the ADA says if they’re applied improperly the chemicals in the products might damage your gums and teeth. And unsupervised use might mask an undiagnosed medical condition or an unknown allergy. 

Moreover, tooth whiteners are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. And some important information about the products is often missing from their labels. For example, last year the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Products recommended that home tooth-bleaching products contain no more than 6 percent hydrogen peroxide. But none of the eight tooth whiteners tested and rated (available to subscribers) by Consumer Reports included the peroxide percentage.

Finally, no one seems to know how often you can safely use tooth whiteners. The ADA simply says more studies are needed, especially for products containing a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide.

Bottom line: With so much still unknown, we think you should take it easy on how frequently you use tooth whiteners. If a super-white smile is especially important to you, break out the kits for special occasions, like before you greet your relatives over the holidays. With any luck, that should tide you over until at least swimsuit season.

—Sue Byrne, Web senior editor

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