One of the big surprises last year in an annual survey of how parents planned to spend their back-to-school budget were a few expenditures that had never come up before. About 45 percent of parents polled said that hair highlights, tattoos and teeth whitening were among the things they planned to splurge on for fall, according to the long-running American Express Spending & Saving Tracker survey.
Hair highlights may not seem so far fetched, but teeth whitening may be a cause for concern. (We’ll save the discussion about tattoos for another time.)
Every parent wants their child’s smile to be bright and white, especially for the first day of school. These days, those in search of whiter teeth for their kids don’t need to look far; teeth-whitening kiosks are springing up at malls and salons, 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, damage tooth enamel, and interfere with plastic and composite fillings.
Root out the Problem
Before investing in a bleaching treatment, talk to your child’s dentist to determine if he or she is a good candidate for teeth whitening. Sensitive teeth, cavities, cracked teeth, and gum disease should be addressed before bleaching, because whitening treatments can exacerbate these issues and cause unneeded pain and dental damage.
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. Whitening may not work on these teeth. It’s also possible that perceived discoloration isn’t really discoloration at all, just a reflection of the natural variations in human tooth coloring. Natural teeth are rarely perfectly white, notes Dr. Casamassimo.
Keep Baby Teeth Bleach-Free
Parents should hold off on bleaching treatments at least until their child has a full set of permanent teeth, usually by 12 or 13. Some dentists, including Carolyn Taggart-Burns, D.D.S., spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry, recommends waiting even longer. She advises parents to wait until children are in their mid-teens before considering any kind of whitening procedures. By then, their teeth will have fully erupted — dental lingo that essentially means grown — and tooth pulp will be fully formed, she says.
Consider Your Options
When only one or two teeth are in need of color correction, full-mouth bleaching isn’t the only course of action. For small spots or areas of discoloration, 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.
Give Home Whitening a Whirl
Before shelling out for professional bleaching treatments, consider trying over-the-counter products like whitening toothpaste, floss, and the popular whitening strips sold in drugstores. When used properly, they may provide a safe and effective alternative to other at-home bleaching treatments for less cash. Of course, because these products aren’t marketed for children, parents should employ caution, common sense, and proper supervision when using them. The least risky would be whitening toothpastes, which contain lower concentrations of whitening chemicals along with mild abrasives to polish away surface stains.
Choose Snacks Carefully
From heavily pigmented sauces to syrupy soda, many food products can stain kids’ teeth. This is truly a case in which an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Making sure kids brush after eating staining foods (or avoiding them altogether) will help keep smiles bright. If you do bleach your child’s teeth, make sure you avoid these foods for several days.
Guard the Gums
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 that can lead to pain, even cracking and bleeding. There is evidence that bleaching chemicals can cause cellular changes to the gums, says Dr. Casamassimo. Parents should make an effort to reduce the amount of bleaching chemicals on their child’s gums. Custom-made bleaching trays ordered from a dentists’ office can minimize the contact between the gums and the bleaching agent, and lessen the chance for irritation.
It’s important to note that the results of teeth bleaching treatments are temporary; over time teeth will return to their original hue, and bleaching treatments will need to be repeated. This means careful use of bleaching products is imperative, because continued misuse of the whitening solutions is what creates the most problems for youngsters, Dr. Casamassimo says.
For superior safety, Dr. Taggart-Burns recommends that parents entrust their kids’ teeth to a real dentist. “Dentists are not only trained in the bleaching treatment systems, but the biological and chemical effects of bleach to the teeth. They are also trained to resolve any problems a patient may experience, giving kids all the more reason to smile.”
Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mom of two who writes frequently about children’s health topics.