Couple smiling at the camera

Your smile speaks for you before a single word escapes your mouth, and having stained teeth harms your image. Coffee, tea, red wine and smoking are among the most common culprits when it comes to tarnishing an otherwise gleaming smile.

If you are not able to brush your teeth immediately after consuming substances that can stain teeth or would prefer not to drink your coffee through a straw to prevent it from contacting your tooth enamel, you do have options. Teeth whitening, whether done by a dentist or at home, can make a significant difference in your appearance.

“I like to tailor my whitening recommendations to each patient’s specific needs and goals,” says Dr. Emily Johnson of Magnolia Family Dental in Kirkwood. “We offer three different professional whitening options in our practice. These include in-office whitening treatments, take-home whitening in custom-fitted trays and a quick, easy take-home alternative, which does not require dental impressions.”

Each option, though, involves application of a professional-strength whitening gel. “They each have a similar mechanism of action but vary in the strength and length of time the gel stays on the teeth,” Johnson says.

Heather Tarticchio, dental hygiene coordinator at Kirkwood Station Dental, notes that almost all patients can tolerate these types of whitening options without pain or excessive sensitivity. Crowns and veneers cannot be whitened, and in rare cases, the tooth enamel may be too thin or fragile. But the only downside for most people is the risk of some slight tooth sensitivity or gum irritation that can last a day or two because of the peroxide in the whitening gel.

“Patients will often see the most immediate results with our in-office whitening system, but then can follow up with at-home treatments to touch up as needed,” Johnson says. “I recommend this to patients who may want the fastest results for an event coming up soon, who may not have time to whiten at home.”

Tarticchio adds that this option uses a light-emitting diode to activate the gel and takes only 20 to 30 minutes, making it a popular technique. Kirkwood Station Dental charges $99 for an in-office whitening session, and teeth are usually brightened a couple of shades, she says. How long results last depends on each patient and his or her habits. For instance, daily coffee drinkers may opt to have their teeth whitened again sooner than those who do not consume coffee or other potentially staining products.

“Many patients see results right away with our take-home whitening products, as well, which are our most popular option and my favorite, as well,” Johnson says. “They can choose to apply the gel daily or at their convenience at home, typically for one to two weeks.”

Tarticchio notes that this option, in which dental impressions are taken in order to create custom-fitted trays that patients fill with whitening gel and then wear for two to four hours, depending on the strength of the gel, costs about $300 at her office for the custom trays and first tube of gel. However, patients can purchase additional gel and use the trays on an ongoing basis as needed.

“If someone has never whitened their teeth in the past, I recommend trying our on-the-go introductory whitening product,” Johnson says. “This includes 10 prefilled whitening tray sets for the cost of $75 and only needs to be worn for 15 minutes.”

If peroxide gels and trays are not appealing, whitening toothpastes can help. “We sell a product called AP 24 Whitening Toothpaste,” Tarticchio says. “It doesn’t contain peroxide, so it’s good for people who have more sensitive teeth.” Like most other whitening toothpastes, AP 24 works as a mild abrasive, polishing off outer stains.

Johnson cautions patients to research whitening toothpastes and use only products bearing the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance. “Some of the whitening toothpastes that promise instant, dramatic results can be very abrasive and could potentially cause irreversible damage to the enamel,” she says. “There are some over-the-counter whitening strips available from major companies, as well. These can be effective; however, some patients have reported that they see a quicker rebound in staining or that they experience more sensitivity or gum irritation. For the same cost, I recommend patients start whitening with a professional-grade product that they can purchase from their dentist. It is very important to have routine examinations of your teeth by a dental professional to minimize any complications or side effects.”

Both Johnson and Tarticchio recommend asking your dentist about whitening options to ensure the product is appropriate for your teeth, your lifestyle and your budget. “There’s a lot we can do,” Tarticchio says. “No one needs to live with a smile they aren’t happy with.”

Kirkwood Station Dental, 200 S. Kirkwood Road, No. 90, Kirkwood, 314-858-1175,

Magnolia Family Dental, 10322 Manchester Road, Kirkwood, 314-822-4521,

Connie, a native of St. Charles and graduate of the MU School of Journalism, is a freelance writer and editor who contributes to print and online publications for clients throughout the region. She enjoys travel, hiking, kayaking and drinking good coffee