Can a whitening toothpaste really whiten your teeth?

After being ill for so long, my teeth were in serious need of some whitening. Lack of nutrients coupled with vomiting millions of times a day means I look and feel like a train wreck at the moment (actually I’ve visually improved a lot over the last fortnight but I’m still not my usual self), and I’m trying to attack my problem areas head on.

Tooth whitening is one of those tricky spots in beauty, because one one hand you’ve got every sixteen year old on Youtube telling you that they’ve found the perfect homemade tooth whitening formula and on the other hand you’ve got cosmetic dentists who claim that the only way to get whiter teeth is to pay them large amounts of money for an in-office or take-home whitening treatment. Both in-office and homemade tooth whitening remedies can be extremely damaging to the teeth if you just blindly follow them, so I decided to do some research before I put anything in my mouth.

I researched exactly what these whitening products did, then tried one out myself to find out if the middle ground – store bought whitening products, such as whitening toothpastes – were really worth the money.

How whitening works:

There are a lot of scam whitening products on the market that don’t really work, and a lot of “home whitening” recipes that are complete and utter bullshit. All of the whitening products that actually work contain peroxide in one of two forms – hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) or carbamide peroxide (CH6N2O3). Carbamide peroxide is an unstable molecule made of urea and hydrogen peroxide, and when it comes into contact with water or certain types of light, it breaks down into urea and hydrogen peroxide. Urea, in case you missed it at school, is the concentrated waste product that combines with water to form urine. In beauty products, it usually comes from animals because, while it can be synthesized in a lab, it’s easier to get it from pig urine.

For the purposes of whitening, your teeth have two layers; enamel and dentine. Your natural tooth colour comes from the dentine which is slightly yellow and which shines through the enamel. This is genetic. When staining occurs, it affects the enamel on the outside. This is environmental. Both genetic and environmental tooth colour can be changed by whitening products.

Professional whitening products tend to use carbamide peroxide, where shop-bought (or Amazon bought) whitening products tend to go straight for the hydrogen peroxide. How are they different? Well they’re really not. And here’s why: When the carbamide peroxide is put on the teeth and exposed to light (water isn’t used because it would wash the gel off the teeth), the carbamide peroxide breaks down into its component parts (urea and hydrogen peroxide). The hydrogen peroxide whitens the enamel which removes staining, then it penetrates into the dentine layer to change your natural shade. This double-action is why products which don’t contain hydrogen peroxide just don’t work very well – other ingredients can only affect the enamel (and some products such as salt or lemon juice can cause serious abrasion or acid erosion). If the enamel gets damaged by inappropriate whitening ingredients, it doesn’t grow back and in spite of what it says on all those “enamel repair” products, all they do is patch the holes, they can’t grow back tooth enamel, so it’s really important to avoid using abrasive products that will damage the tooth surface. That’s why I’d prefer to use hydrogen peroxide, which has been proven safe in the concentrations found in tooth whitening products, than any of those “home remedies” or other ingredients that haven’t been tested to find out whether they damage tooth enamel – enamel damage isn’t immediately obvious and I’m not going to risk my future tooth health because once you’ve ruined your teeth, you’ve only got a turd to polish.

Is peroxide safe on teeth?

Yes and no. It is safe in the small quantities you can find it in EU approved products. Not so much if you buy a bottle of hair bleach and apply it liberally – this is NOT safe. This sort of silliness causes tooth loss, gum damage, whatever. You MUST use a product that is SPECIFICALLY for teeth. If you swallow a little bit of it, don’t worry because the hydrochloric acid will neutralize it in this reaction:

2HCl (stomach acid) + H2O2 (peroxide) –>> 2H2O (water) + Cl2 (chlorine).

As the chlorine gas gets produced, however (such as in the event of ingesting a fair amount of H2O2), the chlorine reacts with the unreacted hydrogen peroxide (remember, it doesn’t all react at once, reactions take time):

H2O2 (peroxide) + Cl2 (chlorine) –>> O2 (oxygen) + 2H+ (hydrogen-plus ions) + 2Cl- (chlorine-minus ions)

The + and – signs denote ions, which means they behave differently. This is a free radical reaction that you don’t want running round your body because it can cause cancer and premature ageing.

The concentration in tooth products is 0.1% (UK) up to 3% (US). A few molecules of chlorine won’t kill you. HOWEVER, it IS a poisonous gas, so if you swallow a tablespoon or more of 3% hydrogen peroxide, take the container and get yourself straight to the ER (or A + E) at the hospital.

Safety is a sliding scale, and on it, we can put Hydrogen Peroxide between Coca Cola (not great for you but won’t kill you for a long time) and House Bleach (contains peroxide and other active ingredients such as anionic surfactants). As an aside, all those things that say “uses pure oxygen to clean” contain peroxide. That’s where they get the oxygen from. Hydrogen peroxide is just water with an extra oxygen atom attached, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to drink it, and I’m mentioning this because it concerns me that some “health nuts” are drinking hydrogen peroxide for it’s alleged (read: none) health benefits. One day, the damage will catch up with them in the form of cancer (peroxide will release free radicals if you drink it) or loss of function of their digestive system (chemical burns, yum). I suppose that’s why the posthumous Darwin Awards were invented. So don’t drink it, that’s stupid, but using small amounts to whiten your teeth then rinsing your mouth with water is fairly harmless in the grand scheme of things.

What about gum damage? And other problems with the red squishy tissue in your mouth? Small amounts of hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide don’t seem to damage the red stuff (gums, tongue etc), whereas there are a lot of reviews of “peroxide free” whiteners (usually these come with a snazzy blue LED to make you think you’re shining a UV light on the gel, which ALWAYS contains some chemical that will cause irritation) which state these have burnt people’s mouths. When that happens, people are duped into thinking the product is working, but you know what? Vindaloo curry burns your mouth and THAT doesn’t whiten your teeth. However, in high concentrations of peroxide, or if you leave the peroxide in your mouth for too long, you will end up with sensitivity in your mouth area.

Which products did I use to whiten my teeth?

I took a two pronged approach – I used two different whitening toothpastes. I started with the Arm and Hammer Truly Radiant toothpaste, which contains Hydrogen Peroxide. It claimed that it would give a “radiant smile in 5 days” and I wanted to test that. What exactly is a radiant smile? No idea. For the purposes of research (to find out if this stuff really worked), I brushed my teeth 10 times in the same day. This lifted a lot of the surface staining but I’m not sure it had as much of an effect as I would like. Also brushing my teeth so many times in one day made my mouth very sore and irritated because the toothbrush abraded the gums and the toothpaste dried out my lips. I liked the idea of using a toothpaste to whiten, but I disliked the idea of not being able to just put the stuff in my teeth, wait 20 minutes then get white teeth. In the past I’ve used Rapid White and that worked faster, but you can only use it once per day and it left my teeth feeling very sensitive so I haven’t used it for several years. I also hated having two trays in my mouth because it stopped me swallowing my saliva, meaning I had to use huge quantities of tissue to stop that saliva from interfering with the gel on my teeth.

Here is the Youtube video showing me brushing my teeth a lot to test the Arm and Hammer Truly Radiant Whitening Toothpaste:

I would recommend this for a couple of quid if you need a quick fix but it’s not the sort of results I could get from painting white nail varnish over my teeth going to the dentist, but then, I could buy 1000 tubes of Arm and Hammer for the cost of one whitening treatment at the dentist (I was quoted £500, and I was told I’d have to do the actual treatment myself at home as my dentist said that dentists aren’t allowed to whiten in the UK any more). Once some of the stains had lifted a bit from using the Arm and Hammer, I tried out the Blanx White Shock Toothpaste (with a special blue light) which cost about £10. I first tried this in January 2015 and wasn’t too impressed, but thought I’d try it again for comparison with the Arm and Hammer. It claims to be peroxide free. I tried it again this time, making sure I kept my teeth under the light for half an hour, and it STILL did nothing.

In conclusion, the toothpaste containing peroxide worked MUCH better than the “whitening treatment” with a scientific-looking blue light which did absolutely nothing to change the colour of my teeth. However, neither of them gave me the sort of results I was looking for, and I am still looking for my perfect tooth whitening product. I looked into whitening strips but all the ones for sale in the UK sound like crap.

Looking for a more natural alternative, I tried an experimental coconut oil rinse this morning. I rinsed for two separate sets of 5 minutes, which was very boring, but my teeth looked shiny afterwards. I’m not sure they’re any whiter, but I’m going to try it out over the course of a few days just to see, because oil pulling with coconut is totally harmless (unless you choke on it or something). I’ll write a new article if it works out, but I’m still on the look out for a good chemical whitener.

Have you tried any tooth whitening products? What did you think of them?

What is Micellar Water? CAUTION: SCIENCE!!

I’m away until Mon/Tue, this is prescheduled.  What is micellar water?
Are you someone who sees a new word and wonders what it means? I was looking into whey protein substitutes today and learned that the word “micellar” isn’t just a brand name. It’s a biological term, and I’m going to explain it to you in the most straightforward way I can, without dumbing it down. For me, it’s been interesting to put a name to a scientific process that I know well – it happens every time I wash my hands.  There is a glossary under the first picture to help with key terms.

What is a micelle?
It’s a collection of surfactant molecules that are dispersed in a liquid colloid. In an aqueous solution (a liquid made of mostly water), the surfactant usually has a head that is attracted to water (called a hydrophilic head) and a tail that is repelled by water (a hydrophobic tail). Soap forms surfactants, and the tail buries itself in the dirt in your hands, then the head pulls that dirt away by being attracted to the water from the tap.

Because the heads love water and the tails hate it, if you put a collection of surfactants in water, the heads which love water all want to be as close to the water as possible, and the tails want to get away, so if there’s enough of them and its warm enough, they form 3D balls like this one:

micelle diagram
This is known as a micelle.

surfactants: These are something you find in soap, shampoo, and household cleaning products such as washing up liquid, laundry detergent and bleach, it’s a type of molecule that cleans things. Imagine it looking a bit like a tadpole, except it’s not a living thing.

dispersed: When molecules split up and move around in a liquid without dissolving, they are said to have dispersed. Football fans disperse after the game ends.

colloid: A colloid is a liquid that is full of particles that haven’t dissolved but have still mixed into the liquid so it doesn’t feel grainy or gritty usually. An example is milk. Another example is any emulsion such as paint.

How do scientists get them to form in micellar water?
It takes two things to make them form, because naturally, the surfactants just float to the edges of the liquid where the tails can be away from the water. To make a micelle, you need (drum roll please, these two factors are what makes most chemical reactions happen)… higher temperature and higher concentration. That’s because of something you should have learned around age 15 in school science – collision theory. You probably know the process even though you might not have been able to put a name to it. Basically, all chemical reactions can only happen if two things collide with each other. If they don’t make that connection, they will go about their separate ways and nothing changes. It’s like how two people can’t make a baby if they’ve never met (assuming they’re not doing it in a lab). So collision theory says there’s a few things that can increase the chance of those collisions taking place, which increases the amount of a product we can make with the ingredients. The three things that affect the rate of a reaction (usually) are temperature, concentration of reactants (ingredients), and pressure. Technically, it all comes down to pressure, but we usually split it out into the causes of the pressure (temperature and concentration) to make it more clear so people can repeat the experiment. Experiments have to be repeatable.
So they heat the water and surfactants, they add loads and loads of surfactants to the water, and they get these micelles, which are basically balls of soap that are effectively stuck in the water, because the water-loving heads are all facing outwards.

What’s so special about micelles? Why is micellar water the Next Big Thing?
Firstly, it’s got the word “water” in the name so it appeals to the all-natural crowd. Secondly, it’s got soap in it. So it’s going to get you clean.

Micelles, as we said above, are only formed in very high concentrations of your surfactant, and because it forms those protective spheres, it’s less harsh on your skin, your hair, etc, than lower concentrations. A good example of this is sodium laureth sulphate. I’ve said before that, as a surfactant (a cleaning thing), it’s pretty damn good. In lower concentrations, it’s known to be quite harsh on the skin and hair – so the less you use at any given time, the more it will dry your skin or hair out. How can this be? How does this possibly make sense? Imagine the surfactants, the tiny molecules of sodium laureth sulphate, as sharp sticks:

surfactant sticks micellar

When the sticks are on their own, and facing in every direction, they will poke you and hurt you. When they are arranged like this, they can’t hurt you because the sharp bits are all facing each other in a big sphere that protects you:

micelle diagram sticks sphere
In detergents, soaps, and other surfactants, the pointy end is not a sharp stick, it’s actually a tail (although technically that’s still an analogy). It doesn’t like water, so it buries itself into the dirt in your hands, so that, when the water is washed off, the heads (which love water) swim away and the tails are still holding the bits of dirt. The problem comes when there isn’t enough dirt and that’s when it causes dry skin and hair – when they bury themselves in the natural oils of your skin and hair, the ones you want to keep, and then they swim away with them.

So what use is a micelle in water? If there’s no tails, how does it get the dirt off?
It makes surfaces easier to clean, by lowering the surface tension of water. This makes it easier to get into all the nooks and crannies (when you wipe a cloth over a surface, for example), and is also used for washing clothes. It has loads of uses inside the human body such as to get pharmaceuticals to release in a certain place or at a certain time, and special micelles in your liver (formed from fatty acids) are what absorb key vitamins including vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin A and vitamin D. What it can’t do, is get grease out, or anything else that won’t just wipe off. So micellar water will work a bit better than plain water, but not as well as real soap, but the micellar water will be less drying to the skin or hair.
So effectively, Micellar Water is very watered down inactive soap. It will get you clean because it has the exact same properties as any surfactant, and it will be gentle because it’s very watered down and all the pointy bits are facing inwards.

Have you tried micellar water? What do you think of it?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll reply when I get back 🙂