Paint-on tooth whiteners. / Whitening Pens.

- What are they? / How are they used? / Advantages and Disadvantages. / Common side effects. / Safety concerns.

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Link to How To Use section.
Link to Whitening Pen Advantages section.

What is "paint-on" whitening?

For the most part, this technique is just another at-home method based on the science of peroxide tooth bleaching (the chemical process on which most over-the-counter products are founded). What makes it different is simply the method by which the bleaching agent is delivered to the surface of the teeth.

It's the delivery system, or really the lack of one, that makes this technique unique.

For any type of tooth-whitening process to be successful, the bleaching agent must remain in contact with the surface of the teeth being treated. With some methods, this contact is facilitated by the use of bleaching trays or plastic strips.

In the case of paint-on products, no delivery apparatus involved. Instead, the whitener is applied directly onto the surface of the teeth by way of a brush (sometimes referred to as a "pen"). Once applied, the whitener solidifies, thereby creating an adherent film that ultimately dissolves or washes away.

How are paint-on teeth whiteners used? How long are they left on your teeth?

We can't answer these questions for you precisely because we don't know which product you'll be using. Just as product formulations vary, so do their instructions.

A tooth-whitening pen.

A tooth-whitening pen (brush).

What's typical?

  • The whitener is painted onto the front side of the tooth or teeth you want to lighten.
  • It's left in place for a treatment period of about 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Some products allow twice-a-day applications.

Application details.

  • In general, you apply the whitener to all visible (front) surfaces of a tooth, with emphasis on those areas that have the heaviest stains.
  • Your application of the whitener should fall just short of reaching the gum line.

Tips and pointers.

  • For better adherence, allow the film to dry for 10 to 15 seconds after application.
  • Try to minimize activities that might dislodge the whitening film. Avoid rinsing, eating, and drinking. Also, try to minimize the amount of friction created by lip or cheek movements against your teeth.
  • With some products, you may find that the whitener adheres to your teeth better if you dry them slightly (either 30 seconds of air drying or else wiping them off with a dry washcloth).
  • Although these products tend to wear away or wash off during your treatment session, it's still good practice to use a toothbrush and/or vigorously rinse to remove any whitener that remains afterward.

Advantages of paint-on whiteners.

This technique offers some features that other at-home systems can't match.

1) It can be used to whiten individual teeth.

Whitening an individually darkened tooth.

Applying whitener to an individually darkened tooth.

A person may have a situation where they only need a lightening effect for one or a few teeth. Different from other at-home methods, paint-on technique is readily used in this fashion. It's a simple matter to limit its application to just selected teeth.

That's not to say that using this type of product will be especially effective (see below). But with diligence a person may be able to get satisfactory results, or at least make some improvement.

[This page discusses individually darkened teeth in greater detail.]

2) It's a "trayless" technique.

For some people, a distinct advantage of paint-on products over other at-home methods is that they do not require the use of any type of delivery appliance such as a bleaching tray or plastic strip.

These items can be cumbersome, hard to keep in place, a cause of gum irritation, or a trigger for excessive salivation.

For all of these reasons, a paint-on product might offer the opportunity of treatment where otherwise the person would not be inclined to whiten their teeth at all.

3) Paint-on products are fairly inexpensive.

As compared to tray-based or whitening-strip products, paint-on whiteners and pens are usually the least expensive way to get introduced to at-home whitening.

While you may not be able to achieve the same level of results as with other methods (see below), the results you do get may motivate you to investigate and pursue other options.

Disadvantages of paint-on tooth whiteners.

1) The film is easily dislodged.

A general criticism of paint-on products is that they tend to get rubbed or washed off fairly easily, possibly before they've been in place long enough to create much of a whitening effect.

What's needed.

Whitening teeth with peroxide compounds is a simple case of cause and effect. To achieve tooth lightening, the whitener must be in contact with the tooth's surface for an appropriate amount of time.

If it's not, the whitening effect produced will either be minimal, uneven or take an extended number of treatments to achieve.

As compared to other at-home methods.

With other types of at-home systems (strips, trays), the delivery apparatus that's involved helps to maintain contact between the bleaching agent and the surface of the teeth being treated. It also acts as a barrier that helps to isolate the whitener from the general oral environment (helps to prevent it from being dislodged or diluted by saliva).

As opposed to these methods, paint-on technique does not afford the same degree of protection for the bleaching agent and this fact tends to inhibit its effectiveness.

2) The whitener can be difficult to place properly.

Another criticism of paint-on products has to do with their ease of use. The application of the whitener, while seemingly easy, can be awkward. Ensuring full coverage over the entire surface of each tooth (including portions you can't see but others can) can be more of a challenge than you might expect.

One study (Date 2003) evaluated user application of these types of products. A blue dye was added so the exact extent of coverage could be measured. It was determined that study participants were able to apply the whitener over 85% of the needed tooth surfaces. (A tray-based system would achieve a greater degree of coverage than this.)


Our Strassler (2006) reference details the findings of studies that have evaluated the comparative effectiveness of paint-on tooth whiteners. It doesn't have a lot of positive things to report.

  • Whitening toothpaste and paint-on whitener (one delivering the equivalent of 6% hydrogen peroxide [hp]) generally produce the same (minimal) whitening effect.
  • (6% hp) paint-on whitener is less effective than tray bleaching utilizing a 5% carbamide peroxide gel (10% is the standard entry-level concentration for tray technique).
  • Whitening strips have been found to be more effective than (6% hp) paint-on products.

There can be aspects of paint-on whitening technique that makes it a reasonable choice for you. And it may be able to deliver the results you seek.

But in terms of creating dramatic results or treating stubborn types of staining, a tray-based system, whitening strips or treatments in your dentist's office make the more effective choice.

Common side effects.

Paint-on teeth whitening is simply a variation of peroxide-based tooth bleaching. And that means the types of side effects one can expect are the same as with other at-home methods.

The most common ones are gum irritation and tooth sensitivity. For most people, however, these are only mild in nature and do not require attention from a dental professional.

Collectively, our references (Barlow, 2003; Collins, 2004; Date, 2003; Gerlach, 2003; Li, 2004; Slezak, 2002) performed studies involving paint-on products that delivered a hydrogen peroxide content in the range of 6%.

  • Most of these studies did report that their participants did experience side effects (for example, Date reported that 6% of study participants experienced tooth sensitivity and 13% experienced oral tissue irritation).
  • However, none of these studies found that a participant needed to discontinue their whitening treatments because of adverse events related to side effects.

We discuss common side effects of peroxide whiteners and methods that can be used to manage them on this page.

What type of peroxide do paint-on whiteners contain?

Carbamide peroxide.

Colgate's Simply White was the first paint-on product brought to the marketplace (2002). And as any dentist might guess, it was formulated with carbamide peroxide (at a concentration of 18%, which is equivalent to 6.3% hydrogen peroxide).

The reason this might be expected is because this compound has been utilized the most with tray-based systems (the technique that ultimately lead to the explosion of over-the-counter at-home products you see in stores today).

No doubt Colgate was influenced by the abundance of research documenting its effectiveness and safety.

Hydrogen peroxide.

Other forms of peroxides have been utilized since then. Colgate Simply White Night (introduced in 2003) contained hydrogen peroxide. Crest Night Effects utilized sodium percarbonate peroxide.

Current products seem to lean toward the use of hydrogen peroxide (Dazzling White pen, Go Smile pen, Smile Briter pen, Venus White pen). Documenting the exact formulation of a company's product is sometimes difficult. It's our impression that a concentration between 6 and 9% is common.

Are paint-on whiteners harmful to teeth or dental work?

Since paint-on whitening involves the same chemistry as all other peroxide-based whitening techniques, we'll refer you to safety information page that covers this in detail.

As a point of reference:

  • The information on the above page discusses the use of 10% carbamide peroxide as a whitener. At this concentration, it's equivalent to 3.5% hydrogen peroxide.
  • It's our impression that most paint-on products deliver a hydrogen peroxide concentration in the range of 6 to 9%.

Specific safety information about paint-on whiteners.

We did find two studies that specifically evaluated the effect of these types of products on teeth and dental restorations.

  • Slezak (2002) studied the effects of Colgate Simply White (which delivers a 6.3% hydrogen peroxide equivalent) on both enamel and tooth nerve tissue. It was determined that it created no harmful effects and was safe to use when applied as directed.
  • White (2003) evaluated the use of Crest Night Effects (which delivers a 5.3% hydrogen peroxide equivalent). Samples of tooth enamel, root dentin, and three types of dental filling materials were all exposed to simulated use of this product and no clinically significant effects were found.

You must read this.

Possibly the most important thing to know about paint-on (peroxide) whiteners and their effect on dental work is that while a person's teeth can be expected to whiten, generally the dental restorations on them will not.

This non-whitening effect means that after the bleaching process has been completed existing dental work will need to be replaced, so to match the new color of the person's teeth. Depending on the specifics of the situation, this might require a considerable amount of treatment time and expense.

An for this reason, it's always a good idea to have your dentist check you out and advise you before you initiate any type of whitening treatments.



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