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Whitening Home Remedies - Do They Work?

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Updated April 08, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Wanting whiter teeth is an easy way to freshen up your appearance and even make you look younger. More people are looking for a natural approach to dental care and may try out some "natural home remedies," many of which have been passed down from generation to generation.

With the invention of commercial toothpaste between 1800 and 1850, Americans concerned with dental health and whiter smiles had their first "go-to" product. In the 1960s, years of studying the element fluoride yielded another significant advance with cavity-fighting and teeth-whitening fluoride toothpastes. And, in the 1980s, another important step forward was taken -- recently stabilized hydrogen peroxide formulas meant that true whitening toothpastes could be developed and then sold to a public eager for whiter, brighter smiles. In the 1990s and 2000s, extremely effective whitening systems based on carbamide and hydrogen peroxide formulas became available to the public. Now, whitening systems based on this formula continue to innovate at a very fast rate.

Even with a wide variety of teeth whitening toothpastes and wildly popular whitening kits, strips, lights, and other procedures, some people are still turning to those so-called home remedies, primarily for budgetary reasons. But do they really work? And more importantly, could they actually be dangerous?

1. Whitening Teeth With Lemon Juice

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Some people advocate brushing or rinsing with lemon juice to whiten teeth, but lemon juice is actually citric acid and can harm teeth, causing them to lose calcium (which gives teeth some of their off-white color). Once calcium is lost, it’s irreplaceable. Lemons have a pH of 2.3, which is very low. The lower the pH, the more acidic it is. If you put lemon juice directly on your teeth, it starts causing damage immediately. It is quite common for dentists to deal with tooth destruction caused by people sucking on lemons.

And combining lemon juice with baking soda -- sometimes also recommended -- is another bad idea. Not only will the acid of the lemon juice (which has been shown to dissolve actual bone) leech calcium from teeth, the baking soda will erode tooth enamel with the potential to cause permanent damage.

2. Whitening Teeth With Strawberries

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This is another "home remedy" purported to help whiten teeth, but can be dangerous. Strawberries get their power to brighten teeth from ascorbic acid -- and acids are harmful to teeth. If someone chooses to brush with strawberries, they should be sure to brush their teeth immediately afterwards with fluoride toothpaste, and then floss.

3. Whitening Teeth With Apples

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Whitening your teeth by crunching on an apple? While apples have plenty of wholesome and healthy attributes, whitening your teeth safely isn't among them. Apples are fine as a snack, but not as a substitute for oral hygiene like brushing and flossing. And any brightening that might occur is the result of an apple's slight amount of naturally-occurring malic acid -- only you’d have to eat so many apples to see any difference that you’re running the risk of acid-based damage again.

4. Whitening Teeth With Baking Soda

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Baking soda won't bleach your teeth, but it can remove plaque, as it is an abrasive. Be warned, though -- because of this abrasive quality, if you use baking soda too frequently, it will damage tooth enamel. Most commercial toothpastes will remove stains as effectively as baking soda, and do so without the side effects or risks.

5. Whitening Teeth Using Wood Ash

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Can you believe some folks claim that brushing your teeth with wood ash from your fireplace is a safe way to whiten teeth? The reason wood ash whitens teeth is because it contains potassium hydroxide, also known as lye. Only hard wood ash contains significant concentrations of potassium hydroxide; soft wood ash does not. Whitening with wood ash is dangerous. The harshness of the potassium hydroxide could significantly damage your teeth over time.

6. Brushing Teeth With Sea Salt

Sea Salt

Some folks also advocate the use of a paste or a "rub" of sea salt, combined with water or even an acid, such as cider vinegar, to whiten teeth. The use of abrasive compounds along with the acid-based vinegar will probably brighten teeth a bit, but no more so than a commercial application. Plus, with repeated use of the salt/vinegar paste, you will experience tooth damage through decay or increased sensitivity.

7. Be Safe, Not Sorry

The primary reason you should avoid whitening home remedies is that they're subject to misapplication. There are no formulas or procedures created to assure safe usage, so there's a real risk of severe and permanent tooth or gum damage. No dentist reviews your oral health before you begin to use them, so there's no way of knowing how any specific home remedy would affect your particular teeth or gums.

On the other hand, companies spend thousands of hours testing their commercial teeth whitening products and methods to determine a standardized application protocol that's safe for most people. Additionally, when you choose a teeth whitening method that requires dental supervision, you can be sure your dentist will evaluate your dental health before proceeding, adding a second level of care and caution to prevent damage or discomfort.

Since people have been trying to whiten their smiles for thousands of years, there are undoubtedly hundreds of goofy and implausible concoctions designed to do the job. Happily, we live in the 21st century, where reliable and affordable answers can be found in every drug or grocery store. So, do yourself a favor -- head for the dental care aisle and stay away from the fruit section.

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