Teeth Whitening: Recent History and Better Care

We recently learned that teeth whitening was historically performed with the use of human urine and other somewhat suspicious products. While the science is sound – ammonia in urine acts as an effective bleaching agent – there really had to be another way. 

We all know the value of a gleaming white smile. Today it’s a trademark of health, wealth, and beauty, and our predecessors felt just the same way. 

Thankfully we have a good few hundred years of progress to look back on which has moved us away from imported Portuguese urine and onto more pleasant substances.

Teeth whitening in recent history

Sadly, ancient humans had to make do with sticks, volcanic ash, and some pretty nasty acids right up until the 19th Century.

One of the most effective teeth whitening agents was stumbled upon quite by accident by dentists looking for a treatment for gum disease. They made use of a hydrogen peroxide gel as an oral antiseptic which was subsequently found to be efficient at combatting gum disease and offered up valuable enamel whitening at the same time. 

A few years and several experiments later, around 1918, dentists discovered that a heating lamp accelerated the process of lightening. This “Aha!” moment was followed in the 1960s by the realisation that an overnight application of this wonder product left teeth sparkling and white.  

What is hydrogen peroxide?

Hydrogen peroxide is described by Healthline as follows: 

“[Hydrogen peroxide] differs from water only by the addition of one extra oxygen molecule. But that extra molecule turns it into a powerful oxidizer. It’s the reason hydrogen peroxide is such a versatile cleanser, and it’s also the reason you need to use it cautiously on people and pets.

“Hydrogen peroxide breaks down quickly and easily when it comes into contact with air or water, so it’s considered safer than chlorine chemicals.”

We learn further that this humble product kills bacteria, viruses, mould spores, yeasts and fungi. That’s quite an impressive collection of superpowers, we’re sure you’ll agree.

So, over the past few hundred years, people have used hydrogen peroxide to clean everything from their toilets to their dogs, mirrors to laundry, ponds, bathrooms. and – of course – their teeth.

Carbamide peroxide

The late 1980s introduced us to carbamide peroxide, a product containing a percentage of hydrogen peroxide. Interestingly, this product described as follows by the National Library of Medicine:

“Carbamide Peroxide is an agent composed of urea and hydrogen peroxide. As an earwax removal agent, carbamide peroxide releases, upon administration into the ear, oxygen and causes foaming which helps soften, loosen and remove excessive earwax. It is also used as a disinfectant and in dentistry for its teeth whitening effects.”

Just a moment… urea? Have we come full circle and we’re back to using human waste products as a mouthwash?

Thankfully, no. 

“Urea, also known as carbamide, is an organic compound with chemical formula CO(NH2)2. This amide has two –NH2 groups joined by a carbonyl (C=O) functional group. Urine, on the other hand, is a liquid by-product of metabolism in humans and animals.” (Source)

What is the difference then, between hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide?

The company behind the release of this chemical compound, Opalescence, is quite clear on the difference between the two products. “Hydrogen peroxide breaks down faster than carbamide peroxide, so it releases most of its whitening power within 30–60 minutes. Carbamide peroxide, on the other hand, releases about 50% of its whitening power in the first two hours and can remain active for up to six additional hours.  

“This means that products using hydrogen peroxide have shorter wear times. However, the number of days a person will need to use either one depends not on hydrogen peroxide vs. carbamide peroxide, but on the individual’s unique needs and rate of tooth colour change.”

Modern-day teeth whitening systems

We are so fortunate to have moved away from the crude and unsanitary dental practices of old and enjoy the instant gratification that comes with a set of shining, white teeth. 

There is more to the fascinating story of teeth whitening in recent history which we plan to delve into in our next article. There we will discuss what you can expect when you visit your dentist today.

In the meantime, we recommend a thorough cleaning schedule, as well as a regular visit to the dental hygienist who can take care of superficial stains before they become a problem. When you’re ready to shine, then come in and chat with our friendly team who will be happy to assist you.

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