Treating Burned Gums from Teeth Whitening

Hand written by Dr David Chen, an actively practicing dentist and avid writer. #doctorswrite

Whitening your teeth is relatively safe but sometimes there are unintended side effects. The most notable one is teeth sensitivity but another often overlooked side effect is actually burned gums. Yes, you can accidentally chemically burn your gums if you happen to get the whitening gel on it during treatment.

The gel contains hydrogen peroxide which is potent enough to not only whiten your teeth but also the surrounding soft tissue that it touches like the gums. Depending on how bad the whitening burn is, your gums can be anywhere from mildly painful to severely painful.

What does burned gums look like:

  • Mild burn – Gums may be a little red and inflamed looking.
  • Moderate burn – Gums may look white.
  • Severe burn – The gum tissue may look injured or damaged.

Our purpose is to inform you of how to treat the burned gums. What you should do and what you shouldn’t do. We’ll also give you some tips on how to prevent it from happening in the future.

How to treat burned gums from teeth whitening

The most important thing is to stop the activity which is causing it because you don’t want to make it worse. After that, you just need to provide it with palliative care in order to help it heal faster. That is about the most that you can do for it because all it really needs is just time for your body to do what it’s naturally supposed to.

How to make the burned gums heal faster:

  1. Stop the whitening. If your gums are burned and it is extremely painful, you should probably stop the procedure. It makes no sense to keep causing yourself pain and continually burn the gums even more making it worse.
  2. Rinse with salt water. You want to keep the gums free of food and debris by rinsing frequently. One of the most gentle mouthwashes that you can use is just plain salt with water. If you use an alcohol based one, it may burn the gums even more.
  3. You can gently brush it if it’s not too painful. However, if it is a very severe burn you may have to stay away from brushing the area.
  4. Take OTC pain medication. One of the easiest things to do to relieve some of the pain is by taking pain killers. You can try either ibuprofen or acetaminophen, whichever one you normally take for pain should work.
Listerine cool mint - zero alcohol

What you should avoid for faster healing:

  • Avoid spicy or acidic foods. Anything that will irritate your mouth without any injury will only be exacerbated when your gums have been burned by whitening gel. Stick to food that is more mild for the next few days so that you allow it time to heal.
  • Alcohol based mouthwashes. Same principle as avoiding acidic foods. Yes, mouthwash is good for you but in this case you want one that is gentle such as a salt water rinse. You can also opt for something that is neutral pH wise.
  • Leave the area alone. We know that the gums bother you but try your best to not play around with it. That means keeping your fingers and your tongue away from the area as much as possible.

As long as you follow the guidelines above, you’re doing everything that you possibly can in helping it heal faster. In case you were wondering if you can put anything directly on the gums, you can try orajel or anbesol but it may not be as effective as you think. First of all the mouth is filled with saliva so its very difficult to keep it dry. The saliva will try to wash away the numbing gel constantly.

Aside from that the gel may only help alleviate some of the pain for only about 10-15 minutes total. The instructions also say to not use it more than 4x a day for 1-2 days total. If that is still worth it for you then go ahead and give it try!

What caused the gum burn while whitening?

No one intentionally tries to burn their gums while they’re whitening their teeth but it does happen from time to time. How it happens may be different depending on the specific bleaching product that you’re using such as in-office vs do it at home solutions. Some may be more prone to it while others have built in functions that are meant to minimize the chances of the gum whitening from happening.

In-office whitening

There are protective measures in place if you whiten your teeth professionally at the dentist’s office. The two most popular systems are ZOOM and KoR whitening. Both of those systems use a gum barrier to help protect the gums by preventing the whitening gel from coming into contact with them.

Kor whitening placing gum barrier
What the gum barrier looks like

The gum barrier gel is similar to a bonding that gets placed on the gums instead of the teeth. It gets cured and hardened by a blue light. Essentially it acts as a layer that covers your gums so that only the teeth get whitened.

Kor whitening placing whitening gel
Completed gum barrier with whitening gel on the teeth

However, despite your dentist’s best efforts in covering the gums with this barrier gel, the gums can still get burned. Your gums will definitely be covered with the gel but sometimes the whitening material will still find a way to penetrate through somehow. You may notice it look a little red or white in some spots where it does happen.

Nonetheless, even though the barrier gel is not perfect it is still very much needed. If you tried to whiten professionally without the gel, the gum burn would be far worse.

Do it yourself and take home whitening

The do it yourself whitening solutions are more prone to accidentally whitening your gums. The most obvious reason is that you do not have a gum barrier gel that you can place. The OTC solutions such as the teeth whitening strip only comes with the strip and nothing else. The strips are not customized to the contours of your gumline so they may get some of the gel on your gums.

shape of whitening strips

What it looks like is literally a rectangular piece of plastic strip that is flexible. It’s not customized for your mouth so if it happens to cover parts of your gums, your gums will get whitened. You can’t really do much about it since it is massed produced that way. Although that is also the reason why it costs a lot less than an at the dentist solution.

Just so that you’re aware, a lot of dentists do offer a take home professional solution as well. These typically utilize customized trays to hold the bleaching gel in. The advantage of this over the strips is that the trays follow the contours of your teeth and gums. How you can minimize the gel contact with your gums is after you put the trays in, you can wipe away excess whitening gel that comes out at the top with a simple cotton tip.

KoR-Seal-Tray-Upper
Credit: KoR

The picture above is of the KoR seal trays. As you can see, the flexible plastic follows the contours of your teeth and gum line! That is very different from the OTC products which do not do that. Of course to make something like this takes a lot more time and consequently it is also the reason why it costs more.

Tips for preventing your gums from burning

Depending on what kind of product you’re using, there are ways to minimize the amount of whitening gel from burning your gums.

  • Wipe away all excess with a cotton tip. If you’re using a gel based whitener, make sure you wipe away any excess that flows out. Definitely pull your lips out of the way after you put the material on and check to see if any excess spilled out.
  • Place the gel on carefully. Don’t haphazardly put the material in your mouth without looking. Apply it carefully so that it doesn’t touch the gums.
  • Less is more. People tend to think that MORE whitening gel will result in whiter teeth but that is incorrect. All you want is just a thin layer that covers your enamel. In terms of teeth whitening, less is actually more because it is unnecessary to put so much. Putting more only increases the chances of your gums becoming collateral damage.
  • Position the product away from your gums. If you’re using something like the strips, try to place it in such a way that it is not directly on top of your gums.

Last but not least, if you’re constantly whitening your gums accidentally with all of the OTC products you may want to just consider in-office whitening. Your dentist will at least be able to put the gum barrier gel on to help you minimize the chemical burn on the gums.

In fact, according to this study by Nature, they recommended that hydrogen peroxide containing products should be used in conjunction with a gingival barrier. Their reasoning is that it will minimize the amount of soft tissue damage when done so. In other words, it will protect your gums from being burned.

Takeaway

It may be unavoidable at times because having burned gums from teeth whitening is a potential side effect. The material is potent enough that it can whiten more than just your enamel if you’re not careful. We’d be fairly surprised if you don’t whiten your gums accidentally here and there.

The do it yourself options are more likely to cause it the first few times you use it. However, after a couple of sessions of using it, you’ll probably get a lot better at preventing it from happening. At least that is one positive right?

Nonetheless, there are things that you can do to help the burned gums from healing faster. The first being to stop the whitening treatment immediately so that it doesn’t get worse. After that you should try your best to keep the area clean so that it can heal uneventfully. It just takes time so don’t be impatient with the healing process.

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The purpose of the content at afterva is to encourage you to seek in person care with a doctor. It's not nor was it ever meant to be a substitute for medical advice. Every situation is unique and impossible to diagnose without a clinical exam.

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