How white should your teeth really be?

Turn down the wattage: Why experts say all that whitening could harm your teeth

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 29, 2023 10:00AM (EDT)

Set of dentures (Getty Images/Bart_Kowski)
Set of dentures (Getty Images/Bart_Kowski)

The actor I was interviewing had the kind of smile that could light up a room. And by that I mean he had a glow in the dark, Ross in season six of "Friends," shade that doesn't occur naturally in humans of smile. I'd never noticed it in any of his performances, but in person, every perfectly straight, perfectly-sized tooth seemed to shine with a luminosity that wasn't merely white, it was "My dead relatives are beckoning to me from beyond these incisors" white.

If there's such a thing as too much of a good thing, I think I saw it in the wattage inside this guy's mouth.

The quest for a perfect, bright smile — and the corollary association of a dimmed one as a moral failing — is as old as human nature. The book of Genesis references Shiloh, with "teeth white from milk," while generations of readers have been forever haunted by Holden Caufield's description of a classmate with "mossy-looking" teeth in "The Catcher in the Rye." 

"Without a doubt, white teeth are perceived as more attractive," says Jordan Weber, DDS, a general dentist in rural Kansas. "And this makes sense — teeth that are decayed, diseased, or otherwise improperly cleaned will have a brown or yellow shade, so teeth without this appearance appear as healthy." Bright teeth, in contrast, signal a clean, healthy mouth. And because our enamel wears down and our teeth discolor over time, they also telegraph youth. 

A 2021 study in the Journal of Dentistry bears that out, to an overachieving degree. Subjects presented with a variety of digitally modified photos revealed that "Tooth color exerts an influence upon the appraisals made in social situations." Further, the study found that "Whitened tooth appearance is preferred to natural tooth appearance, irrespective of age and gender of the judge," and "The faces with more whitened dentition are perceived to be younger across all age groups and gender of the judges." 

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If our current preference is for our teeth to be extra white, it's no doubt in part because we can get them that way. An ancient Egyptian recipe for teeth cleanser relies on "salt, pepper, mint, and dried iris flower" to keep the pearly whites pearly white, while medieval Britons relied on "honey, salt, and rye flour." But we've historically always had a limited range of gradient possibilities with our own mouths, based on diet, genetics and other unique factors. A childhood round of antibiotics, for example, led to my spouse's permanently discolored set of choppers.

  "White teeth doesn’t mean healthy teeth."

The modern era and the rise of social media have changed our expectations and abilities. A 2022 analysis from Insight Partners estimates Americans spend over $6 billion per year on the home whitening market alone, including strips, gels, devices and specialized toothpastes.

You wouldn't know it from my decidedly non-movie star wattage smile, but I am right there in that number, spending a lot of time and money on my teeth. A few years ago, I went all in on Invisalign, an investment I rank up there with graduate school in terms of prolonged discomfort and priceless confidence boosting. And I'll regularly blow thirty to fifty bucks on some luminous dazzling effects home whitening kit, just to mitigate some of the effects my coffee and Malbec lifestyle. 

But that super brilliant, elusive white is hard to get for a reason. "Although cosmetics and beauty are subjective, ultimately human teeth are not, in their natural state, supposed to be sheet of paper white," says Weber. And Scott Cardall, owner of Orem Orthodontics in Utah, gives further background. "Teeth have three main layers," he says, "the exterior enamel, the middle dentin, and the interior pulp. The exterior enamel is naturally translucent, the dentin is slightly yellow, and the pulp isn't usually visible so it's not usually relevant (except with broken or severely diseased teeth). Because the exterior layer is translucent and the middle layer is slightly yellow," he explains, "it's natural for teeth to be slightly yellow."

For those still determined to aim for the furthest, glossiest reaches of the Benjamin Moore color wheel, there are some caveats. Deirdre Dunne, a hygienist at the Irish practice Bandon Dental, notes, "You can put your enamel at risk by overusing whiteners, excessive use can cause it to thin or weaken, which can be detrimental to the overall health of your teeth." She says, "Like with most things in life, overuse or misuse can lead to unwanted side-effects. Tooth sensitivity and gum irritation are some of the most common issues for example, so It's crucial to follow the instructions provided by the product and consult with a dentist before undergoing any teeth whitening treatment." And she notes, "White teeth doesn’t mean healthy teeth. Good oral health includes healthy gums, proper alignment and the absence of cavities or oral diseases."

"Simply put, these procedures require the removal of healthy enamel to fix a tooth that was perfectly healthy to begin with."

More extreme procedures can bring more serious consequences. "The only way to achieve the bleached tooth color is through means that are relatively new and unnatural, such as hydrogen peroxide bleaching or bonded veneers," says Weber. "As for veneers and crowns," he says, "which are other common means of achieving ultra-white teeth, these are invasive procedures that are damaging to otherwise healthy teeth. Simply put, these procedures require the removal of healthy enamel in order to fix a tooth that was perfectly healthy to begin with."

"Additionally," Weber adds, "the maintenance and upkeep expenses of crowns and veneers are often not fully understood or appreciated by patients until it is too late. While TikTok personalities love to show off their brand new turkey teeth, they never show their followers the thousands of dollars in maintenance expenses required."

I don't want my teeth to ever be the shade of a tobacco-stained old pub. But after getting a blinding eyeful of what a mouth that looked like it had gargled in Clorox looks like, I don't want that either. "Clearly there is nothing advantageous about coffee, tea, or tobacco stains on teeth," says Weber. "But at the same time, there is nothing wrong with teeth at a natural color."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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