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Will Teeth Cleanings Whiten Your Teeth?

Teeth cleanings can make your teeth whiter by mechanically removing extrinsic stains but what it won't do is chemically bleach away intrinsic stains. They will definitely look whiter but not in the way that you probably imagined.


before and after dental cleaning
before and after dental cleaning

Our purpose here today is to explain how cleanings whiten your teeth and in what way they do so. Then we'll compare them to how traditional teeth whitening works and how they brighten your teeth. Last but not least, we'll let you know whether the cleanings are still necessary along with some tips on how to keep your chompers white.


Table of Contents:


Difference between teeth cleaning vs teeth whitening

The difference between teeth cleanings and teeth whitenings are due to the types of stains that they remove.

  • Cleanings will only remove extrinsic stains via mechanical means.

  • Teeth whitenings will remove intrinsic stains via chemical means.


Therefore, the way that they remove the stains and the type of stains that they remove are completely different. Usually when people say they want to whiten their teeth, they're thinking of stain removal by chemically bleaching them.


Teeth cleanings remove extrinsic stains

A dental cleaning will whiten your teeth by getting rid of extrinsic stains only. That only includes the discolorations and stains on the exterior surface of the tooth.


extrinsic teeth staining
extrinsic teeth staining

Examples of extrinsic stains:

  • Plaque on teeth

  • Tartar (calculus) build up

  • Food on your enamel


The teeth cleaning procedure will mechanically remove all of these extrinsic stains that are located on exterior of your enamel. It is very physical and is similar to if you were scrubbing the table top with a sponge. You're literally wiping away everything that is on the surface.


The dental cleaning type of "whitening" is therefore very similar to how whitening toothpaste will "whiten" your teeth. They make your teeth appear whiter by mechanically removing any stains that may be covering the enamel.


Here is a study by the Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, which explains this difference between extrinsic and intrinsic stains.


severe black tartar on teeth
severe black tartar

What cleanings won't do

What they won't do is remove any deeply embedded intrinsic stains. In other words they won't change the color of your teeth like how you can bleach a t-shirt white, which actually changes the color.


The reason why the cleaning and the whitening toothpaste cannot do this is because they do not contain any whitening ingredients. The only material in the world that can truly whiten your teeth are the ones that use hydrogen peroxide or some derivative of it.


Here is a study by Nature where they review the various teeth whitening methodologies but basically the difference between the products are all due to the different concentrations of hydrogen peroxide!


Teeth whitening removes intrinsic stains

When we think of whitening our teeth, what comes to mind is changing the color of our teeth from yellow to white. This change is similar to how you bleach your clothing white. It is more than just scrubbing your teeth to make them whiter because you actually want to induce a chemical reaction that bleaches it white.


teeth bleaching in office
teeth bleaching in office

Teeth whitening is able to do this because their products usually contain either hydrogen peroxide or a derivative of it. They use this chemical to remove deeply embedded intrinsic stains that you can't get to with just scrubbing.


The reason that your teeth look yellow is because you have all of these deeply embedded intrinsic stains within the enamel. Simply abrading away the external surface of the tooth won't change the color because that process can only remove stains that are on top of the surface of the enamel.


The hydrogen peroxide can reach deep into the enamel and oxidize the intrinsic stains, thus making your teeth whiter. This happens via oxidizing the organic substances in your tooth.


All teeth whitening products will contain some form of hydrogen peroxide, albeit at varying concentrations. The OTC products typically use a lower percentage than the professional products that you can get at your dentist's office.


Examples of various products which can whiten via removing intrinsic stains:

  • Teeth whitening strips with or without the LED light

  • Teeth whitening pens

  • Customized take home trays

  • Pre-fabricated OTC trays

  • In-office whitening with or without the light

  • Whitening Mouthwash


crest whitening strips

Are dental cleanings still necessary for whitening teeth?

Despite the teeth cleaning not being able to remove any intrinsic stains, they are still a prerequisite to whitening your teeth. In order for your teeth whitening product to whiten your teeth more effectively, you should get a professional cleaning prior to starting the treatment.


before dental cleaning
before dental cleaning

The reason is because the built up plaque and tartar that is covering your enamel will actually impede or even prevent the whitening gel from reaching the actual tooth structure. What that means is if you try to bleach your teeth with a lot of tartar still there, you'll only be trying to whiten the tartar and not your real teeth.


after dental cleaning
after dental cleaning

What you should do is clean off all of these substances that are covering your teeth so that the material can be in direct contact with the enamel. That makes it work the most effectively so in essence the teeth cleanings help in whitening your teeth. An analogy would be similar to having your car cleaned prior to doing the paint job. You want a clean surface to work on and similarly you want a clean tooth to whiten.


The Verdict

Teeth cleanings can make your teeth appear whiter but it won't whiten them like how you think they would. They can make them appear whiter because if you have colored plaque, tartar, or food covering your enamel the cleaning will get rid of it. In essence, it just reveals the natural tooth color that was underneath all of these extrinsic stains.


It won't whiten your teeth like the whitening products will because the dental cleaning does not use hydrogen peroxide, which is the primary whitening ingredient. Hydrogen peroxide can remove deeply embedded intrinsic stains. When done properly it can change the color of your teeth from yellow to white.


Nonetheless, it is still important to get a dental cleaning prior to starting whitening because it is a prerequisite and it helps your teeth whitening process. If you don't clean off everything that is covering your teeth, the whitening gel won't work as well because it won't be able to come into direct contact with your actual enamel.


Therefore it isn't an either or because you need to get your teeth cleaned prior to whitening.

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About the author: Dr David Chen, DDS

Hello, I'm Dr Chen and I'm an actively practicing dentist in Long Island City, NY. I graduated from Columbia University College of Dental Medicine in 2016 but prior to going to dental school I was already working in the dental field. It's been more than a decade since I first got to know dentistry and let me tell you, time flies by quickly. Since then I've developed a fondness for writing, which is how this all got started!

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Medical Disclaimer:

This blog is purely meant for information purposes and should not be used as medical advice. Each situation in your mouth is unique and complex. It is not possible to give advice nor diagnose any oral conditions based on text nor virtual consultations. The best thing to do is to go in person to see your dentist for an examination and consultation so that you can receive the best care possible.

The purpose of all of this oral health information is to encourage you to see your dentist and to inform you of what you may expect during your visit. Due to the unfortunate nature of dentistry, there isn't really any true home remedies that will get rid of dental problems. Roughly 99.99% of them require in-person intervention by a healthcare professional.

Hint: That is the reason why you can't eliminate seeing dentists in your life!

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