Teeth Whitening and Sensitivity: Causes and How to Avoid It

by | May 20, 2022

Whitening your teeth is a popular way to brighten your appearance, not just your smile. Your teeth can be several shades whiter in just a few hours. You can even effectively whiten your teeth at home. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to experience tooth sensitivity after bleaching. This can range from mild to severe discomfort if something went wrong or it’s left untreated.

What is Sensitivity from Whitening?

Although having a beautiful smile can help lift your self-confidence and make you feel awesome, you may wonder whether it’s worth the pain if you’re experiencing sensitivity. However, you should know that if you experience discomfort, it won’t last long and doesn’t cause any permanent damage to your teeth. If it continues, contact your dentist. 

What Causes Sensitivity?

It’s important to understand that having a beautiful smile doesn’t have to be painful. Here are some causes of sensitivity that you should know:

Hydrogen Peroxide

Most over-the-counter (OTC) and professional whitening products have hydrogen peroxide as their active ingredient. People whose teeth are sensitive to peroxide may feel an ache during the whitening process. This possible side effect typically goes away with a short amount of time. 

Bleaching Softens Enamel

Whitening products temporarily soften your tooth enamel easier to penetrate, which exposes the soft middle layer called dentin. Dentin is a sensitive part of the tooth that surrounds the tooth’s pulp, which is where the nerves are. When the nerves are irritated, it causes pain.

Whitening Tray Pressure

Some of the whitening trays used may apply force on your teeth which can make them sensitive for a short while.

10 Tips to Avoid Sensitivity

After your whitening procedure, these tips will help shorten the duration and intensity of any sensitivity you may be having:


  1. Follow directions: Follow the instructions closely, whether they’re your dentist’s instructions for using a professional product or manufacturer’s directions for over-the-counter products. Never leave the product on for longer than recommended.
  2. Avoid hot and cold foods and beverages–During the first 1-2 days after your procedure, your teeth are the most sensitive. Be sure to avoid foods and drinks that are either very hot or very cold at this time. Choose room temperature food and drinks.
  3. Avoid foods and drinks that are acidic–Sodas and citrus fruits are acidic and can irritate your mouth, which increases the sensitivity you experience.
  4. If you’re using an OTC whitener, try to use one with a lower level of peroxide. An effectively reduced level of around 6-10% is fine for most people.
  5. Use desensitizing toothpaste: Brush your teeth with a desensitizing toothpaste or apply a desensitizing gel for the first 48 hours after your procedure. 
  6. Brush gently: Using a soft-bristled toothbrush and rinsing with lukewarm water will help reduce sensitivity.
  7. Use fluoride products: Mouthwashes and toothpaste that contain fluoride can help remineralize your teeth and block the pain signals to your oral nerves.
  8. Use a straw–Drinking through a straw right after your whitening treatment will help prevent the liquid from coming into contact with your teeth, which can decrease irritation.
  9. Try to avoid over-the-counter whitening products–OTC systems use generic trays that don’t fit your mouth correctly, which can cause the bleaching gel to get onto your gums. This increases the sensitivity you feel. 
  10. Get help–Always contact your dentist if your issues with sensitivity continue or get worse. It could be a symptom of a more serious problem like receding gums or cavities.

What You Can Do Before Your Whitening Treatment

There are a few steps you can take before your whitening treatment to help keep tooth sensitivity to a minimum:

  • Desensitizing toothpaste: About 10 days before your procedure, start using desensitizing toothpaste. Using this type of toothpaste helps block pain signals from the surface of your tooth to its inner nerve. Allow the toothpaste to sit on the surface of your teeth for a few minutes before rinsing. This will help you get the maximum effectiveness.
  • Desensitizing gel: Also do this before your whitening treatment. Leave the gel on your teeth for the suggested length of time before rinsing with water.
  • Pain medication: Take over-the-counter pain medication before your teeth whitening procedure to help reduce the sensitivity and discomfort. Then you can continue to take it after the procedure to manage any continuing sensitivity.

Different Methods for Whitening Teeth

If you’re thinking about teeth whitening, be sure to go over the facts about teeth whitening with your dentist first. Your dentist can tell you if your teeth and gums are healthy enough to withstand a whitening process. If it’s decided that you are a candidate, you’ll need to decide which whitening method to choose. Following are several common methods:

In-Office Bleaching

Teeth whitening in the dental office produces excellent results. This can be done quickly, usually in just slightly over an hour. It’s comparatively expensive but you can save time by having immediate results.

Trays and Gels

Teeth whitening trays and gels are effective but it takes longer to achieve the optimal results than with in-office bleaching. These clear trays are usually worn a couple of hours a day or overnight and may take from 3 days to a couple of weeks before any results are noticed. It depends on the strength of the peroxide in the gel. Basically, there are two types of teeth whitening trays and gels:

  • Purchased from your dentist: These kits produce more effective and faster results because they contain a stronger peroxide bleaching agent than the OTC kits. Also, the trays are custom-made to fit your teeth exactly.
  • Purchased over-the-counter: OTC trays are generic-sized and frequently allow the bleaching agent to come into contact with your gums. This can cause irritation.

Teeth Whitening Strips

You can find teeth whitening strips in every drugstore (and some grocery stores). These OTC whitening strips are relatively inexpensive, easy to use and many of them actually work. Still, you may get whitening sensitivity from the strips and it may take longer to get the results you want depending on the strength of the peroxide they contain.

Teeth Whitening Toothpastes

Teeth whitening kinds of toothpaste contain mild abrasives to remove the surface stains from your teeth. Some may have extra polishing agents and special chemicals that are more effective against stains than regular toothpaste. However, teeth whitening toothpaste is not actually designed to bleach your teeth.

Miscellaneous Whitening Products

There are always new whitening products showing up in stores including:

  • Whitening chewing gum
  • Whitening dental floss
  • Mouthwashes

Since these products are relatively new, not much research has been done to prove or disprove their effectiveness. 

How Long Do the Whitening Effects Last?

As you might have suspected, teeth whitening is not permanent. In fact, people who consume foods and drinks that cause staining may see the whiteness begin to fade in as little as 1 month. The intensity of whiteness will vary among people depending on:

  • The condition of the teeth
  • The level of staining
  • The type of bleaching system used

8 Tips to Keep Your Teeth Bright:

  1. Avoid foods and beverages that stain as much as you can. Almost everything with acids or tannins can dull your teeth. So take it easy on: 
  • White and red wine
  • Sports drinks
  • Carbonated beverages (light and dark)
  • Black tea and coffee
  • Berries
  • Other foods with strong colors like soy, curry, and tomatoes
  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day.
  • Floss at least once a day.
  • Rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash at least once a day to kill bacteria that cause plaque.
  • Only use a whitening toothpaste once a week.
  • Use a regular toothpaste the rest of the time.
  1. Brush or rinse right after consuming stain-causing foods or beverages.
  2. Follow normal good oral hygiene routines:
  3. Eat plenty of produce and calcium-rich foods. When you eat fruits and veggies, it helps to “scrub” your teeth. Doesn’t your mouth feel clean after eating a crisp apple? In addition, high-calcium food such as cheese can help keep your teeth white.
  4. Avoid tobacco. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco can all yellow your teeth. 
  5. Get your teeth cleaned regularly at the dentist’s office. A professional cleaning will remove the plaque that picks up stains from what you eat and drink. A dental hygienist can help keep your teeth looking and feeling good.
  6. Sip your beverages through a straw. This reduces your exposure to liquids that stain.
  7. Think about having touch-up treatments. You may need a touch-up every 6 months or after a year or two. It depends on the whitening method used. If you smoke or drink stain-causing beverages, you may need a touch-up more often.

DIY vs. Dental Office

Do-it-yourself whitening methods aren’t the same as getting your teeth whitened by a professional. Here are a few important differences:

  • Bleaching agent–OTC products and dentist-supervised at-home products usually have a lower strength bleaching agent, about 10-22% carbamide peroxide content. That is equal to about 3% hydrogen peroxide. However, in the dental office, professionally applied whitening products contain hydrogen peroxide concentrations from 15-43%.
  • Mouth trays–With a dentist-supervised at-home bleaching procedure, your dentist will take an impression of your teeth and make a mouthpiece tray that is customized for your teeth. This promotes maximum contact between the whitening gel and the teeth. It also minimizes the gel’s contact with your gum tissue. OTC products also have a mouthpiece tray, but the “one-size-fits-all” method means that it will not be an exact fit. Poor-fitting trays can irritate gums and soft tissue by allowing more bleaching gel to leak onto these tissues. If you opt for an in-office procedure, the bleaching agent is applied directly to your teeth without trays.
  • Protective measures–In the dental office, your dentist will apply either a gel to your gums or use a rubber shield that slides over the teeth before your treatment. This protects your gums and oral cavities. OTC products don’t offer these extra protective steps. 
  • Costs–OTC methods are the least expensive and in-office whitening is the most expensive. 
  • Unsupervised vs. supervised process–In the first place, your dentist can perform an oral exam and take your whole medical history into consideration. This helps determine if bleaching is a suitable treatment based on the type and intensity of stains and the number of restorations. Your dental professional can better match the type of stain with the best treatment if it’s appropriate.

In addition, your dentist will likely want to see you a couple of times: 

  • To address any questions about the directions, 
  • To make sure the custom-made tray fits correctly,
  • To check your gums for any irritation, and 
  • To see how the process is working in general. On the other hand, with OTC bleaching products, you are on your own.

Taking the Plunge

So have you decided to take the plunge into teeth whitening? It’s never been easier to brighten your smile than it is today. There are all kinds of methods you can use. But, if you decide to try whitening at home, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that you talk with your dentist first, particularly if you have:

  • Sensitive teeth
  • Dental restorations (implants, bridges, or dentures)
  • Very dark stains or a single dark tooth
  • Lots of fillings or crowns

Gardens Family Dentistry

The dental professionals at Gardens Family Dentistry in Palm Beach Gardens, FL are experienced in teeth whitening and a wide range of dental services, from emergency treatment to dentures and everything in between. Your smile is what people see first. So don’t leave your first impression on just anybody. If you’ve got questions, contact us, and let us help you put your best face forward.