Dr. Jennifer Jablow calls them “bleaching anorexics.” Dr. Larry Rosenthal prefers “bleaching junkies.” Peering into a patient’s mouth, Dr. Jonathan Levine can spot one in eight seconds. Dentists in the city are seeing more and more DIY tooth-whitening addicts who are abusing over-the-counter products—like Crest Whitestrips or tray-and-gel systems such as Rembrandt’s Plus Superior Whitening—often to the point of pain and permanent damage.
Michele Hallivis, 28, a biotech sales executive, began with ordinary whitening toothpaste, then upgraded to strips, paint-on whiteners, and finally a tray-and-gel product (where the solution is squeezed into a retainerlike tray and worn for about an hour). She’d marinate her teeth—and inadvertently her gums—in a 6 percent peroxide solution. And because she kept the solution in too long, her gums became so sensitive that, she says, “when I was running at the gym, the cold air hurt my teeth.”
Like many users, Hallivis was susceptible to the effects of carbamide peroxide, the key ingredient in most tooth-whitening products. When the serum is applied too often, teeth can become brittle, and sometimes the gums can slough off, leaving nerves exposed. Patients suffering from receding gums have to go to periodontists for an operation that involves grafting skin from the palate onto the gums. Others with delicate, overbleached teeth may have to invest in porcelain veneers, which range from $1,500 to $3,000 per tooth. “When I confront people and tell them [that the damage] is irreversible,” Levine says, “they’re shocked.”
“The only saving grace,” adds Rosenthal, “is the FDA has limited the intensity of the over-the-counter stuff, so they can only do so much damage.”