If you plan to whiten your teeth, you need to be prepared for some kind of discomfort during the process.
Although the extent to which you will experience this is somewhat unpredictable, planning ahead can help you to minimize the potential discomfort.
To help you prepare for treatment, this article discusses the causes of sensitive teeth, how much sensitivity you can expect based on the teeth whitening option you choose, and how to prevent or prevent sensitivity post-whitening.
What Does Tooth Sensitivity Look Like?
Tooth sensitivity—also referred to as dentin hypersensitivity—is a common dental problem characterized by sharp, sudden pain or discomfort in response to certain stimuli, such as cold or hot temperatures, sweet or acidic foods, and even air exposure.
Sensitivity occurs when the protective layers of the tooth, enamel, and cementum are worn down, exposing the inner layer called dentin. The dentin contains microscopic tubules filled with nerve endings, which, when exposed, can cause painful sensations.
Although it affects around 1 in 8 Americans, women are more affected than men, and those between 20 and 40 are more likely to experience it.
Since sensitivity is an internal problem caused by the exposure of nerve endings, it doesn't look like anything on the outside. However, it can be diagnosed by a dentist through various tests and examinations such as radiography and laser examination.
What Causes Sensitive Teeth After Whitening?
Sensitive teeth after whitening are primarily caused by the bleaching agents used in the whitening process, which temporarily penetrate the tooth enamel and reach the dentin layer.
The active ingredients in teeth whitening products, such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, open up the dentin tubules and allow the whitening agents to break down the stains on the tooth surface. This penetration can also irritate the nerve endings within the dentin, causing sensitivity.
The degree of sensitivity patients experience is variable, but the following factors influence its prevalence:
- Concentration of bleaching agents. Higher concentrations of peroxide in whitening products are considerably more likely to cause sensitivity, according to clinical research.
- Treatment duration. Longer exposure to the whitening agents can lead to increased sensitivity.
- Existing dental conditions. Pre-existing sensitivity, tooth decay, gum disease, or worn enamel usually exacerbate sensitivity after whitening.
- Improper technique. Incorrect application or use of whitening products can cause irritation and increased sensitivity.
- Sensitivity to other dental procedures. If you have sensitive teeth after cleaning, there's a good chance your teeth will hurt after a whitening treatment.
In-office teeth whitening, which often uses bleaching components with up to 43% peroxide, is more likely to cause sensitivity than home whitening kits, which usually have a lower concentration of bleaching agents.
Still, dozens of studies show that chemically based over-the-counter (OTC) products caused mild to moderate sensitivity in the majority of users.
7 Ways To Minimize Sensitivity After Teeth Whitening
Along with gingival inflammation (i.e., swollen gums), sensitivity is the most common teeth whitening side effect.
Below are seven effective ways to minimize or stop sensitivity after your teeth whitening procedure.
Use A Lower Concentration Of Whitening Product.
Dentists typically recommend a whitening product with a peroxide concentration of 10% or lower for patients with sensitive teeth. Higher concentrations produce results more quickly, but they also cause more significant alterations to the dental surface.
If you have sensitive teeth, an in-office procedure is best, even though the cost of teeth whitening will be higher.
Under dental supervision, a low-concentration whitening product can be applied and monitored for any adverse effects. At-home solutions are less expensive, but they are also more error-prone and less customizable.
Decrease The Amount Of Whitening Product In The Tray.
If you must use an at-home teeth whitening product, you can reduce the amount of whitening gel that comes into contact with your mouth.
The best way to regulate this is to use a custom-fitted whitening tray from your dentist. But if you're using an OTC product, you can start by filling the tray with about half of the recommended amount and see if that works for you.
Increase The Time Between Whitening Treatments.
Increasing the time between whitening treatments allows your teeth to recover and re-mineralize, reducing the likelihood of sensitivity.
Teeth whitening results can last anywhere from six months to two or three years, depending on factors such as your dental hygiene, diet, and the type of whitening treatment used.
In-office procedures are the best way to whiten sensitive teeth because of their shorter teeth whitening duration. With professional supervision, dentists can use higher concentrations of bleaching agents that produce quicker and more noticeable results.
In some cases, a single in-office treatment or two visits to the dentist can achieve significant whitening that lasts longer than many home solutions.
Take Pain Medication.
Pain medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate the pain from sensitive teeth after whitening.
OTC medication will also reduce the pain and sensitivity you have in your gums by reducing post-whitening inflammation—another common side effect of the process.
Brush With Sensitive Toothpaste.
The active ingredient in sensitive toothpaste—potassium nitrate—minimizes the sensation communicated to your nerve endings when something comes into contact with them.
Chances are, you already use sensitive toothpaste if you suffer from chronic tooth sensitivity. But if you're going to whiten your teeth, switching to a sensitive toothpaste is also recommended during the whitening process and for a couple of weeks afterward.
If you’re using a teeth whitening kit from the store, it can’t hurt to pick up a tube of sensitive toothpaste along with it.
Pre-Treat With Desensitizing Products.
Using desensitizing toothpaste, mouth rinses, topical creams, or gels before and after the whitening procedure can help alleviate sensitivity.
These products contain strontium chloride, which helps block the dentin tubules and reduce nerve irritation.
Fluoride-containing gels also help reduce sensitivity after whitening by forming a protective shield over hypersensitive areas of your teeth.
Try Natural Teeth Whitening Methods.
Proven natural teeth whitening methods like oil pulling and homemade baking soda pastes are less tough on your teeth and gums than chemical whitening treatments.
They might not do the trick if you need a dramatically whiter smile. But patients who only need a few shades of whitening can benefit significantly from these natural methods without experiencing as much sensitivity.
Steps To Take After Your Teeth Whitening Treatment
After your teeth whitening treatment, there are a few steps you need to take to ensure long-lasting results and minimal sensitivity.
1. Avoid Hot And Cold Foods And Drinks.
Heat is one of the primary triggers of tooth sensitivity. When excessively hot or cold foods and drinks pass through the porous enamel, they come into contact with the already-sensitive nerves underneath, causing intense discomfort.
Here are a few hot or cold foods and drinks you should avoid after whitening:
- Soft drinks
- Hot soup
- Ice cream
If you need to enjoy a traditionally hot or cold beverage (such as coffee), you can wait until it cools to room temperature before indulging.
2. Avoid Stain-Causing Foods And Drinks.
Staining foods such as coffee, tea, and red wine can discolor your teeth even after whitening treatments if you're not careful.
They won't necessarily increase your sensitivity levels, but they will cause you to lose your whitening results more quickly. If whitening causes you to have sensitive teeth, this means more pain for you, as you'll be back to using whitening products much sooner.
It's important to minimize your intake of these (as well as other) staining foods and beverages while your enamel heals.
3. Avoid Acidic Foods And Drinks.
Anything with acid has the power to erode your tooth enamel and cause damage—and your teeth are more susceptible to damage right after they've been whitened.
Citrus fruits, juices, sodas, energy drinks, vinegar-based salad dressings, and pickled foods are all examples of highly acidic foods and drinks you should avoid after whitening.
4. Stay Away From Tobacco Products.
Tobacco—especially smokeless tobacco—is a major cause of tooth discoloration (and sensitivity).
Tobacco products will cause your newly whitened teeth to quickly become stained again. And they'll irritate gums and increase the sensitivity you experience after whitening.
If you use tobacco and you have sensitive teeth, there is a chance that quitting your habit will also eliminate your sensitivity, even after whitening.
5. Brush Gently.
Proper brushing techniques are always important. But they are even more so after whitening your teeth.
The enamel of your teeth is typically softer and more prone to damage right after a whitening treatment.
To brush gently, use the following steps:
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush.
- Brush with light, circular strokes.
- Avoid toothpaste with abrasive ingredients.
- Focus on the tooth’s surface to protect your gums.
In addition to brushing gently, stay away from whitening toothpaste.
Some patients think that they will get better results after whitening if they use a whitening toothpaste. But over-whitening reduces the safety of teeth whitening and leads to higher sensitivity levels.
6. Don’t Brush Immediately After Whitening.
You shouldn't brush your teeth immediately after whitening your teeth.
In the case of an in-office whitening treatment, waiting until you normally brush your teeth at night will be just fine.
If you are whitening at home (e.g., before bed), make sure to brush your teeth before applying your whitening gel, not after.
7. Use Fluoride Products.
Fluoride toothpaste and mouthwash are your best friends when it comes to oral health and preserving your whiter smile.
They help strengthen your enamel and replenish the minerals that were stripped away during the whitening process.
They also rehydrate your teeth post-whitening, making them resistant to sensitivity and easier to keep white.
For optimal results, use fluoride toothpaste and rinse with a fluoride-containing mouthwash twice daily—once in the morning and once at night.
Want to learn more? These are the questions our customers ask us the most.
How Long Does Sensitivity Last After Teeth Whitening?
Tooth sensitivity after teeth whitening treatment typically lasts for a few days. It is most pronounced during the first 24 to 48 hours following the procedure, with noticeable improvements each day thereafter. In most cases, tooth sensitivity should no longer be a significant concern by the end of the week.
Individual experiences may vary, and some patients may experience longer-lasting sensitivity, especially if they have pre-existing dental conditions or sensitivity issues. If sensitivity persists beyond a week or worsens, it is crucial to consult your dentist for further evaluation and recommendations.
Should I Stop Whitening My Teeth If They Are Sensitive?
It is not always necessary to stop whitening your teeth if you experience sensitivity, as it is a common whitening side effect of the treatment. If the sensitivity becomes unbearable or significantly impacts your daily life, it is worth considering taking a break from the whitening process and consulting your dentist for advice.
If you suspect that your sensitivity results from an underlying dental problem—such as tooth decay, gum disease, or a cracked tooth—you should get these issues checked out by your dentist before continuing with teeth whitening treatments. In these cases, you'll likely have other symptoms.
Does Teeth Whitening Hurt If You Have Sensitive Teeth?
Most patients with sensitive teeth experience mild to moderate sensitivity during and after the whitening process. This sensitivity can manifest as sharp, fleeting pangs or pinches, but it is generally tolerable and not severe for most people.
Several factors affect the level of sensitivity patients experience during teeth whitening, including the concentration of bleaching agents, the duration of the treatment, and the individual's pre-existing dental conditions.
Why Do Whitening Strips Cause Tooth Sensitivity?
Whitening strips cause tooth sensitivity for three main reasons:
- Active ingredients. Whitening strips contain bleaching agents like hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide, which penetrate the tooth enamel to break down stains. This process exposes the dentin layer of the teeth and irritates the nerves underneath the enamel.
- Improper usage or application. At-home solutions like whitening strips are more prone to errors in application and usage. If the strips are applied incorrectly or left on the teeth for too long, it will result in heightened sensitivity and irritation to the gums and soft tissues.
- Over-whitening. Excessive use of whitening strips can lead to over-whitening and damage to the tooth enamel. Most whitening strips packages recommend using a set of strips once every six months to prevent overuse. Ignoring these guidelines and using the strips more frequently can weaken the enamel and heighten sensitivity.
How Can I Prevent Sensitivity When Whitening Teeth?
The good news is that most measures you can take to limit your sensitivity are quick and easy. Here's a list of things you can do to minimize your sensitivity during whitening:
- Choose a lower concentration of whitening product to minimize irritation.
- Opt for professional in-office treatments for more controlled and customized results.
- Use desensitizing gel products before and after the whitening process.
- Avoid overusing at-home whitening treatments to prevent enamel damage.
- Maintain good oral hygiene with regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups.
- Limit the consumption of acidic or temperature-sensitive foods and beverages after whitening.
- Allow sufficient time for recovery between whitening treatments to help teeth re-mineralize.
- Quit smoking or vaping during and after your treatment.
- Try natural teeth whitening methods that don't cause sensitivity.
Can Teeth Whitening Cause Permanent Sensitivity?
Teeth whitening itself is not a permanent process, nor is the sensitivity associated with it. In most cases, tooth sensitivity experienced after teeth whitening is temporary and subsides within a few days to a week.
Following proper guidelines will help you limit your sensitivity. If it persists for over a week, doesn't respond to home treatment, or significantly impacts your daily life, contact your dentist for professional advice.
Why Are My Teeth So Sensitive After Braces?
Braces are orthodontic appliances that, by nature, cause lots of pain and discomfort during the treatment process.
Adjustments to the braces involve tightening and loosening the brackets and wires to force the teeth into their desired positions. This can cause gum inflammation and discomfort in your mouth, as your teeth do not want to move on their own. As your mouth adjusts to the new tightness, the pain will subside.
Why Are My Teeth So Sensitive To Sugar?
Your teeth are sensitive to sugary foods and drinks because they cause your enamel to dissolve or disappear. If the enamel or cementum layer covering the roots is lost, it can lead to the exposure of the nerves and pulp inside the teeth. This can make the teeth more sensitive to sweet foods and extremely hot or cold foods.
Why Are My Teeth So Sensitive To Sweets?
Consuming sugary foods and beverages contributes to tooth sensitivity in several ways:
- Acid production. When sugar interacts with the bacteria in dental plaque, it produces acids that can weaken the tooth enamel, making it more susceptible to wear and exposing the dentin.
- Cavities and tooth decay. The acids produced by sugar can also lead to cavities and tooth decay, further compromising the enamel and increasing sensitivity.
- Gum disease. A diet high in sugar can increase the risk of gum disease, which can cause gum inflammation and recession, exposing the dentin and roots of the teeth and heightening sensitivity.
Why Are My Teeth Sensitive To Cold?
Your teeth aren't designed to handle cold temperatures beyond a certain point. When ice-cold foods and drinks pass through the pores in your teeth, they strike the nerves and cause pain. Factors such as enamel erosion, gum recession, cracks in the tooth structure, and tooth decay can all cause teeth to become even more sensitive to cold.
Why Are My Front Teeth More Sensitive?
Front teeth are often more sensitive due to various factors that specifically affect these teeth. Some reasons for increased sensitivity in the front teeth include:
- Thinner enamel. Front teeth, particularly the incisors, typically have thinner enamel than the molars, making them more prone to wear and sensitivity.
- First contact when biting or sipping. Foods and drinks pass through your front teeth first, meaning they touch them before your mouth can equalize the temperature.
- Gum recession. Front teeth may be more susceptible to gum recession, which exposes the tooth roots and leads to heightened sensitivity. Recession can be caused by aggressive brushing, gum disease, or orthodontic treatments.
- Tooth erosion. Acidic foods and beverages, as well as acid reflux, can erode the enamel of the front teeth more quickly because they come into contact with these teeth first.
- Tooth grinding (bruxism). Grinding can wear down the enamel on front teeth, particularly the incisors and canines.
- Chipping or cracks. Front teeth are more prone to chipping or cracking due to their location and function. When these teeth have damage, they can become more sensitive to temperature, pressure, or sugary substances.