Q: I want to use a whitening toothpaste to brighten my teeth, but I'm worried that it will be too abrasive. Is it safe to use every day? What if my teeth are already sensitive?

A: Most toothpastes are at least mildly abrasive to buff and polish away surface stains. But whitening toothpastes contain a special combination of abrasives and detergents that give them an extra stain-removal boost, explains Jaimeé Morgan, D.D.S., a cosmetic and restorative dentist in Salt Lake City, who adds that it is OK to use these products every day. Whitening toothpastes are not as strong as traditional tooth-whitening gels or trays, which usually contain a peroxide agent that penetrates the tooth to get rid of stains from within. (These stronger whitening gels/trays cannot be used every day.) Unlike other methods of bleaching, whitening toothpastes remove only superficial stains, says Morgan. Therefore, they're great in conjunction with other bleaching methods, but don't expect them to produce dazzling results on their own.

If you have sensitive teeth, be aware, though, that any form of whitening may cause an increase in temporary tooth sensitivity. If you're trying to decide which toothpaste is best for you, here's what to look for:



  • Fluoride This is the most important ingredient in toothpastes; it keeps teeth strong, and toothpastes with fluoride prevent cavities better than those without. Try Crest Vivid White with fluoride ($4; at drugstores), which helps remove, and prevent, surface stains.
     
  • Created for those who suffer from canker sores These oral ulcers can be aggravated by foods or beverages that are extremely acidic, like citrus fruits or fruit juices. Some detergents in toothpastes can irritate canker sores, so look for products formulated without such detergents, such as Rembrandt Extra Whitening Toothpaste for Canker Sore Sufferers ($7; at drugstores).
     
  • Minimal abrasiveness While most whitening toothpastes are only mildly abrasive, some can be too abrasive and if used too often, can wear away your enamel, which in turn can make teeth more sensitive. If you want to whiten everyday, look for a product that is labeled as minimally abrasive (try Ultradent Opalescence Whitening Toothpaste, $7; 800-496-8337).
     
  • Designed for sensitive teeth Toothpastes that are specially created for sensitive teeth, in addition to being less abrasive, may contain potassium nitrate, an ingredient that helps to desensitize nerve endings. Find it in Sensodyne Extra Whitening Toothpaste for sensitive teeth ($5.44; at drugstores).

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