Savings Experiment: How Much Will a Bright Smile Cost You?


Just how important is an attractive smile? Americans seem to place a high premium on it. According to a survey from the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 99.7% of adults believe a smile is a key social asset, while 74% feel an unattractive smile can hurt a person's career success. So it comes as little surprise that more and more consumers are turning to teeth whitening of late.

If your pearly whites are looking a little dingy these days but the thought of paying big bucks to brighten your smile is putting a frown on your face, our latest Savings Experiment may change your mood.

To help you find the method that's right for you and your budget, we've broken down the cost and results associated with professional teeth whitening vs. over-the-counter kits. Get ready to flash that grin!

Professional Whitening

This in-office dental procedure, also called power bleaching and power whitening, can often be accomplished in one visit and offers post-treatment results that are immediately visible. While methods will vary among dentists, a typical treatment has your dentist applying a whitening agent with a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide directly to your teeth. Many whitening treatments include an intense light that's focused on your teeth to activate the bleaching process (your dentist or hygienist will often apply a gel or rubber shield to protect your gums).

The process can take between one and two hours, but teeth whiten anywhere from two to eight shades, according to The Consumer Guide to Dentistry. In-office methods are considered to be the fastest, most effective and safest method, experts say.

Professional whitening isn't cheap, however: On average, it will set you back about $650. But the method lasts about a year and can even last several years, Emanuel Layliev, D.D.S., director of The New York Center for Cosmetic Dentistry, told WalletPop.

One word of warning: Because people's teeth whiten differently, a dentist might recommend a follow-up regimen of take-home bleaching trays -- fortunately, these are often included in the cost of the power bleaching.

Dentist-Dispensed, Take-Home Whitening Trays

Dentist-dispensed, take-home whitening trays can either be used in conjunction with or as an alternative to power bleaching. These kits can be more effective than in-office bleaching over the long term, largely because they tend to be used over extended periods, according to The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

Just how do they work? After a dentist takes a mold of your mouth, you're give a set of custom-fitted trays to take home. At home, you squeeze a teeth-whitening gel into the trays and wear them for a few hours each day or night for one to two weeks, on average. The trays cost about $400.

"This option delivers the same results as the power bleaching session, Layliev say, "but simply takes longer. "I recommend using it anywhere from one to two weeks, either twice per day for 30 minutes or once per day for 60 minutes."

The results have the potential to last a year, but they'll vary, depending on the patient.

Over-the Counter Whiteners and Whitening Strips

Over-the-counter teeth whitening products have proliferated in recent years and can be found at many drugstores and big-box stores nationwide, as well as at beauty chains and even some department stores.

These products promise whiter teeth at a fraction of the cost of professional whitening, but experts say they don't produce the dramatic results you see with in-office procedures. That's largely due to the fact, explains Layliev, "that over-the-counter whitening kits use bleach but in lower concentrations than a professional uses."

The over-the-counter kits include whitening trays, whitening strips and newer products that use a light system, which replicates in-office treatments. Some products are meant to be used twice a day for two weeks, while others are designed for daily, overnight use for one to two weeks, the American Dental Association (ADA) says.

You should always consult a dentist before using any store-bought whitening/bleaching product or system.

Whitening strips and at-home trays cost anywhere from $17 to $55.

Now let's dig a little deeper into these three over-the-counter methods.

Whitening Strips

These thin, flexible strips, coated with a whitening gel, are placed over your teeth and conform to your teeth's shape.

The Good Housekeeping Research Institute (GHRI) recently joined forces with a dentist to test some of these products. GHRI gave high marks to Crest Whitestrips Premium, now known as Crest 3D White Whitestrips Advanced Vivid With Advanced Seal Technology, which costs about $44.99. The test found that the Crest strips lightened teeth more than three shades, on average, when used for 30 minutes twice a day every day for a week.

As for how long the whitening lasts, results will vary widely based on your teeth and how often you drink beverages like coffee or wine or if you smoke (which is true of any whitening system, experts say).

Some of the longer-applied whitening strips, such as Crest 3D White 2 Hour Express Whitestrips, can last up to three months, a Crest spokesperson says.

Most users fine whitening strips to be convenient, as you can wear them comfortably and when you're on the go, mostly without notice. However, they are less effective than trays at getting rid of stains in between your teeth, and they can slip and slide, Nina Judar, Good Housekeeping's beauty director, told WalletPop.

Over-the-Counter Whitening Trays

With this method, a gel is applied to the teeth via one-size-fits-all trays. GHRI ranked Aquafresh White Trays as high on the effectiveness scale. GHRI testers wore the Aquafresh trays for 45 minutes a day for one week, and, on average, teeth got two shades whiter. At a local New York City drug store, these trays cost $42.99.

The institute did not test to see how long results would last, but according to Aquafresh's website, the trays will grant you a "whiter smile that lasts for months."

One downfall: Some testers found the trays messy and uncomfortable, Judar says. Another drawback of over-the-counter teeth whitening trays is that they might not fit the patient's mouth correctly, which can cause the gel to leak, resulting in gum irritation.

At-Home Whiteners That Use Light

GHRI also tested the newest whiteners on the consumer market -- those that apply light to enhance the treatment, akin to a professional bleaching. A hand-held light comes with ampules of a hydrogen peroxide-based serum that's applied to teeth. The light then activates the bleaching agent.

These products tend to be more expensive than whitening strips and trays. For instance, the new GoSmile Smile Whitening Light System retails for about $198 at Nordstrom department stores. However, it promises to lighten teeth up to six shades after just one 30-minute session. For instance, GHRI found that GoSmile lightened testers' teeth an average of 1.6 shades, a day after undergoing the treatment.

At the lower-priced end of the light-activated whiteners is Luster's 1 Hour White Tooth Whitening Light system, which retails at Walgreens for $39.99. Luster's sites says teeth can get up to six shades whiter in an hour. The company suggests treatments every two to three months or as needed.

It's important to note, Judar says, that over-the-counter whitening methods will not be as effective as a professional bleaching.

If you want more information or feedback on specific products, check out to see what consumers had to say about a variety of over-the-counter whitening products, and for helpful product ratings and reviews.


So what about toothpastes that purport to whiten your teeth? In general, all toothpastes are whitening products, since they aim to remove surface plaque and debris. However, only a few actually contain chemical bleaching agents, reports The Consumer Guide to Dentistry.

According to the ADA, toothpastes with chemical bleaching agents don't alter the intrinsic color of your teeth. Rather, these "whitening" toothpastes work best as backup support for teeth bleaching, the guide says.

Final Analysis

While professional teeth whitening, power whitening and dentist-dispensed whitening trays cost the most -- on average, between $400 and $650 -- they also produce the best results, results that can last a year or more. And because they're provided by a dental professional, that can help ease consumers' safety concerns.

At-home whitening methods can run you as little as $20 for whitening strips to as much as $200 for the new light-activated bleaching products, but the results won't last nearly as long --up to three months, at the most.

Whitening Watch List

• Always consult your dentist before using any at-home teeth whitening products. When used incorrectly, at-home methods can cause harm to your teeth, gums and mouth.

• Whitening results will vary by person.

• Whiteners might not brighten all types of discoloration. While yellowish teeth will likely bleach well, teeth that have been stained brown or gray often don't.

• Whitening won't work if you've had bonding or tooth-colored fillings placed in the front of your teeth. The whitener will not brighten these materials and "will stand out in your newly whitened smile," the ADA says.

• A professional whitening is your best choice if you're particularly sensitive to bleaching or cold beverages.

• Over-bleaching can cause a bluish hue, chalky whiteness and/or uneven results sometimes called "the Technicolor effect." To prevent this, follow directions precisely and don't go overboard.