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Your teeth: How white is too white?

When is white too white? Dentists are asking that question of some of their patients who frequently bleach their teeth.

"To put it bluntly, I've never had a patient who was totally satisfied that their teeth were white enough," said Dr. William Wathen, a professor of clinical general dentistry at Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas.

For more than a decade, the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Dental Association has monitored products used to bleach tooth enamel. The ADA has found the dentist-prescribed 10 percent home bleaching products safe if used over a two to four-week period for no more than one hour every day.

"The question is whether it—over-whitening—does damage," Dr. Wathen said. "And at this point, we don't know. We haven't been doing it long enough. This over-whitening has only been occurring in the last five years. It takes 25, 30, maybe 50 years—perhaps a lifetime—to see any long-term harmful effects."

If tooth sensitivity develops, the ADA recommends patients stop using the bleach for at least a day.

Currently, all the in-office whiteners that have the ADA Seal contain between 15 and 35 percent hydrogen peroxide. The ADA advises that patients consult with their dentists before they choose any whitening method.

"It starts looking phony when it gets outside the average range of tooth color," Dr. Wathen said.

Your teeth should not be whiter than the whites of your eyes. And if you're an over-whitener, be advised that we really don't know the long-term effect of over-whitening.

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