Is Your Teeth Whitening Treatment Doing You More Harm Than Good?

As BBC News uncovers the scale of illegal teeth whitening practices in the UK, here's how to check yours.
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Whitening your teeth can feel like a quick fix in the quest for a celeb-worthy smile, without the use of invasive vaneers. But illegal teeth whitening is on the rise in the UK, with patients being left with burns and even lost teeth after bodged treatments.

Reports of illegal teeth whitening increased by 26% last year, according to General Dental Council figures analysed by the BBC, with unqualified practitioners carrying out treatments and illegal chemicals being sold for at-home use.

“Some illegal whiteners have been found to use dangerous chemicals such as chlorine dioxide, which can strip enamel of teeth, and even banned substances, such as sodium perborate, which can cause severe burns to gums,” Len D’Cruz, a spokesperson from the British Dental Association (BDA) tells HuffPost UK.

“If you put yourself in the hands of unqualified individuals armed with unsafe chemicals then you are gambling with your health.”

Dentist Dr Ben Atkins, president of the Oral Health Foundation, adds that undergoing illegal whitening could have “lasting consequences”.

“There could be a greater risk of infection and cross contamination, as well as damage to the gums, mouth and even the jaw,” he says. “These are the kind of consequences that last a lifetime, cause unnecessary pain and suffering, and are highly expensive to correct.”

So how do you ensure you’re whitening your teeth safely?

Whitening at home

In general, home whitening kits are likely to take longer and be less effective than treatment by a dentist, according to D’Cruz. But if you’re tempted by an at-home treatment, make sure you buy it from a recognised retailer and check the concentration of hydrogen peroxide listed in the ingredients.

“The law in the UK stipulates that teeth whitening products are only safe to be sold directly to the public if they contain a maximum of 0.1% hydrogen peroxide, and anything above this level should only be supplied, or used, under the supervision of a dentist up to 6%,” D’Cruz explains.

“While hydrogen peroxide, as used in dental practices, is the gold standard for whitening teeth, the amount that can be used in over-the-counter or online products is a very weak solution and is unlikely to have much impact on the colour of the teeth.”

Steer clear of any products using chlorine dioxide and sodium perborate and be aware that some sellers fail to list all ingredients used in their products. For this reason, the BDA recommends seeing a professional for the safest whitening.

Seeing a ‘professional’

Professional teeth whitening can only be performed legally in the UK by professionals registered with the General Dental Council (GDC).

However, the BBC’s investigation suggests hundreds of beauticians in the UK may be offering illegal teeth whitening, some unknowingly, with several companies dishing out “fraudulent qualifications” after providing beauticians with just a few hours of training.

The message from both the British Dental Association and the Oral Health Foundation is clear: visit a dentist for any teeth whitening procedures and treatments.

“Dentistry is not something that can be picked up in hours, days or months. The chemicals used to whiten teeth are toxic and, if not used safely, can cause permanent damage to teeth and gums,” Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, says.

“There is a lot that can go wrong in dentistry and professionals are the only ones who are suitably trained to make these potential risks less likely and deal with any issues in a suitable and timely manner should they occur.

“Beauticians across the UK must be made aware that conducting teeth whitening is illegal and that by doing so they are putting lives at risk.”