Tooth Whitening Leads in Cosmetic Dentistry

A dentist can restore your pearly whites, or you can trim the cost by doing it yourself.

Close up of young woman using a teeth whitening strip

At-home whitening. Those looking for in-office results at a lower price can use a dentist-supervised "at-home" treatment. Patients get a custom-fit tray and a whitening gel that's about a third as strong as the solutions used in offices. "Most at-home kits need to be worn once or twice a day, about an hour each time, and up to two weeks," says Ross. Costing $200 to $400, the kits work as well as or better than in-office treatments, according to Matis. In studies, he has found that at-home treatments outperform all tested in-office products. To prevent restaining, which is most likely to occur during and just after the treatment period, users of the kits need to avoid pigment-laden substances like cola, coffee, and tobacco smoke.

The most common side effect of all whitening treatments—tooth sensitivity—will usually resolve within a day or two, says Ross. In rare instances, the discomfort can cause a dentist to cut short a treatment.

Bonding. Made of a pliable composite resin that hardens in place, bonding is a good option for small repairs like fixing chipped teeth, whitening a single tooth, closing gaps, or creating a straighter appearance. The bonding material, says Kelly, will "match the exact color shade of your tooth, blending into the natural structure." Because it's typically meant for touch-up jobs, it tends to cost less—between $300 and $600 per tooth—than other cosmetic options, like crowns, bridges, and veneers. And unlike veneers, bonding is often covered by insurance, especially if it corrects a structural, rather than merely cosmetic, problem. But just as teeth can stain, so can bonding material.

Veneers. Extreme cases of discoloration, or misaligned or worn-down teeth, may warrant veneers instead of whitening, crowns, or bonding. Usually made of porcelain, veneers are designed to mimic the bright white enamel and shape of healthy teeth and are cemented directly onto the surface of the teeth. They're more expensive than most other cosmetic options, costing $700 to more than $2,000 a tooth, but they last for decades with very little upkeep. And because they come with a stain-resistant coating, veneers, at least, will stay white forever.