Will Teeth Cleanings Whiten Your Teeth?

Written & Reviewed by Dr David Chen

Getting your teeth cleaning will whiten your teeth but not in the way that you think it does. After the dental check up appointment, your teeth definitely look better than before the appointment. However, the way that they look better or “whiter” isn’t quite what you had in mind.

teeth-whitening-cartoon with doctor and tooth

Our purpose here today is to explain how cleanings whiten your teeth and in what way they do so. Then we’ll compare them to how traditional teeth whitening works and how they brighten your teeth. Last but not least, we’ll let you know whether the cleanings are still necessary along with some tips on how to keep your chompers white.

Difference between teeth cleaning vs teeth whitening

The difference between teeth cleanings and teeth whitenings are due to the types of staining that they remove. The cleanings will only remove extrinsic stains via mechanical means. The teeth whitenings on the other hand will remove intrinsic stains but via chemical means.

The way that they remove the stains are different as well as the type of stains that they affect. Usually when people say they want to whiten their teeth, they’re referring to the removal of intrinsic stains via chemical means.

Teeth cleanings get rid of extrinsic stains

A dental cleaning will whiten your teeth by getting rid of extrinsic stains only. What that means is that all of these discolored stains are on the external surface of the enamel.

Examples of extrinsic stains:

  • Plaque on teeth
  • Tartar (calculus) build up
  • Food on your enamel

The teeth cleaning procedure will mechanically remove all of these extrinsic stains that are located on top of your enamel. It is very physical and is similar to if you were scrubbing the table top with a sponge. You’re literally wiping away everything that is on the surface.

cleaning with a rag

The dental cleaning type of “whitening” is therefore very similar to how whitening toothpaste will “whiten” your teeth. They make your teeth appear whiter by mechanically removing any stains that may be covering the enamel. Here is a study by the Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, which explains this difference between extrinsic and intrinsic stains.

What they won’t do is remove any deeply embedded intrinsic stains. In other words they won’t change the color of your teeth like how you can bleach a t-shirt white, which actually changes the color.

The reason why the cleaning and the whitening toothpaste cannot do this is because they do not contain any whitening ingredients. The only material in the world that can truly whiten your teeth are the ones that use hydrogen peroxide or some derivative of it.

Here is a study by Nature where they review the various teeth whitening methodologies but basically the difference between the products are all due to the different concentrations of hydrogen peroxide!

Teeth whitening get rid of intrinsic stains

When we think of whitening our teeth, what comes to mind is changing the color of our teeth from yellow to white. This change is similar to how you bleach your clothing white. It is more than just scrubbing your teeth to make them whiter because you actually want to induce a chemical reaction that bleaches it white.

Teeth whitening is able to do this because their products usually contain either hydrogen peroxide or a derivative of it. They use this chemical to remove deeply embedded intrinsic stains that you can’t get to with just scrubbing.

The reason that your teeth look yellow is because you have all of these deeply embedded intrinsic stains within the enamel. Simply abrading away the external surface of the tooth won’t change the color because that process can only remove stains that are above the surface of the enamel.

The hydrogen peroxide can reach deep into the enamel and bubble out the intrinsic stains, thus making your teeth whiter. This happens via oxidizing the organic substances in your tooth.

All teeth whitening products will contain some form of hydrogen peroxide, albeit at varying concentrations. The OTC products typically use a lower percentage than the professional products that you can get at your dentist’s office.

Opalesence Go

Here are some examples of these various products which can whiten via removing intrinsic stains:

  • Teeth whitening strips with or without the LED light
  • Teeth whitening pens
  • Customized take home trays
  • Pre-fabricated OTC trays
  • In-office whitening with or without the light
  • Mouthwash

Are dental cleanings still necessary for whitening teeth?

Despite the teeth cleaning not being able to remove any intrinsic stains, they are still a prerequisite to whitening your teeth. In order for your teeth whitening product to whiten your teeth more effectively, you should get a professional cleaning prior to starting the treatment.

The reason is because the built up plaque and tartar that is covering your enamel will actually impede or even prevent the whitening gel from reaching the actual tooth structure. What that means is if you try to bleach your teeth with a lot of tartar still there, you’ll only be trying to whiten the tartar and not your real teeth.

What you should do is clean off all of these substances that are covering your teeth so that the material can be in direct contact with the enamel. That makes it work the most effectively so in essence the teeth cleanings help in whitening your teeth. An analogy would be similar to having your car cleaned prior to doing the paint job. You want a clean surface to work on and similarly you want a clean tooth to whiten.

The Verdict

Teeth cleanings can make your teeth appear whiter but it won’t whiten them like how you think they would. They can make them appear whiter because if you have colored plaque, tartar, or food covering your enamel the cleaning will get rid of it. In essence, it just reveals the natural tooth color that was underneath all of these extrinsic stains.

It won’t whiten your teeth like the whitening products will because the dental cleaning does not use hydrogen peroxide, which is the primary whitening ingredient. Hydrogen peroxide can remove deeply embedded intrinsic stains. When done properly it can change the color of your teeth from yellow to white.

Nonetheless, it is still important to get a dental cleaning prior to starting whitening because it is a prerequisite and it helps your teeth whitening process. If you don’t clean off everything that is covering your teeth, the whitening gel won’t work as well because it won’t be able to come into direct contact with your actual enamel.

Therefore it isn’t an either or because you need to get your teeth cleaned prior to whitening.


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A lot of nuances cannot be detected without an in-person clinical exam, which means it is near impossible to diagnose and treat virtually.

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