The business of teeth whitening has become a gigantic global industry this past decade.
From home whitening kits and ‘whitening’ toothpastes to dental office applied bleaching treatments and ‘whitening’ salons in Europe, it seems that our global culture wants to have a white smile.
And understandably given all the unspoken qualities that a white smile suggests…
success, youth, beauty. All the qualities our culture holds ‘on high’.
But what is the cost to the health of the individual who follows this trend?
Some research suggests that whitening (aka bleaching) treatments are safe. Other researchers warn of damage to enamel and potentially permanent tooth hypersensitivity.
Here’s the takeaway…
Whitening techniques use mechanical methods to remove extrinsic stains.
Bleaching techniques use chemical methods to remove both extrinsic and intrinsic stains.
(To get the full story on these definitions, check out our article titled, Teeth Whitening – Methods and Differences)
We also recently took a deep dive into the research on chemical whitening (bleaching) methods and the risks of teeth whitening treatments.
So, in today’s article in our series on how to naturally whiten your teeth without destroying your enamel, let’s focus on mechanical methods and the relative safety and effectiveness of ingredients we can use to help remove stains from our teeth.
In particular, we want to focus on understanding the role of abrasives to help remove surface stains, how to use abrasives safely, and which abrasives work best (and which to avoid).
Toward the end of this article, we will share the one ingredient that has been scientifically proven to be the most awesome gentle abrasive.
The problem with abrasives…
The problem with using abrasives to whiten our teeth by removing surface stains is that they are abrasive and can cause wear to our enamel.
This problem is further increased if we brush unconsciously.
The dental industry and FDA use a term called Relative Dentin Abrasivity (RDA) to score how ‘rough’ an ingredient is on our teeth.
These abrasivity scores range from 0 to 269 with zero being no abrasivity and 269 as something you could use in place of sandpaper :).
Incidentally, the reason we’re ok with using baking soda in our oral hygiene habits is because baking soda has an RDA of 7. On the other end of the RDA scale, you’ll find some commercial ‘whitening’ products with scores as high as 200 (yikes). ( if you want to take a deeper dive on Relative Dentin Abrasivity values)
Why abrasives work…
In fact, studies have been done to determine how effective an ingredient is at removing stains.
Called Pellicle Cleaning Ratio (PCR), researchers have ranked how effectively a product like baking soda removes stains from teeth.
As you’d guess, in general, the more abrasive an ingredient is (higher abrasivity value), the more effective that ingredient is in removing stains (cleaning ratio).
The rub (pun intended) is that the higher the abrasivity, the better it removes stains AND the greater the potential of damage to our teeth.
Watch out for hydrated silica
Hydrated silica is a really, really common ingredient in many commercial toothpastes (yes, even the ‘healthy’ ones).
As an ingredient, hydrated silica is also called diatomaceous earth (DE) and silicon dioxide as well.
And while the info isn’t as terrible as many crazy ingredients, research does state that products containing hydrated silica are more abrasive to our teeth.
When you combine a product that is ‘more abrasive’ with the fact that most of our culture scrubs their teeth and gums unconsciously like we were scrubbing a grout line in our shower, we can cause more harm than good to our teeth and gums brushing with hydrated silica.
In one study we read, researchers state, “dentifrices marketed as “whitening” products were generally more abrasive to dentin, especially for those containing silicas”
So, the quest we went on was to find an ingredient that has a low abrasivity (RDA) value AND a higher cleaning ability (PCR).
Combining low abrasivity and high cleaning ability…
In one study, researchers ranked 26 commercial oral hygiene products based on their abrasivity, cleaning ability AND their ‘cleaning efficiency’.
Researchers studying stains, abrasivity, and cleaning ability found that a relationship exists between the relative abrasivity and the cleaning ability. They came up with what they call ‘Cleaning Efficiency Index’ (CEI).
Let’s look at a couple examples of how this ‘Cleaning Efficiency Index’ works.
If for example, a product was low abrasive AND low cleaning ability, it’s efficiency index score was low too. If a product was high abrasive AND high cleaning ability, it’s efficiency could still be low.
The Cleaning Efficiency Index really ranks the combination of abrasivity in relation to cleaning ability.
What researchers were looking for was a product ingredient that was low abrasive AND high cleaning ability. 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