While teeth whitening is a common practice among adults, limited research to date hasn't confirmed that it's safe for children. Before considering whitening treatments for your child's teeth, it's important to understand the factors that can affect a child's tooth color, the risks of teeth whitening, and what makes children's teeth more susceptible to side effects, such as sensitivity.
About Tooth Color
Although your child's teeth may appear darker or more yellow in color, that doesn't necessarily indicate a problem. Generally, children's permanent teeth aren't as white as their primary teeth. But while it's normal for a child's permanent teeth to look darker because they are thicker, you should still regularly examine your child's teeth for color changes.
Medications, such as certain antibiotics and iron supplements, can temporarily stain the surface of a child's teeth. If this occurs, a dentist can remove the stains by lightly polishing the teeth. Stains on a child's teeth also can be a sign of poor diet, too much fluoride, a chronic condition that affects the development of tooth enamel and dentin, or an illness that causes recurring or persistent fevers.
Don't Miss the Obvious
Just like in adults, a buildup of plaque and food debris on a child's teeth can cause staining. But that doesn't necessarily mean your child needs a bleaching agent to make teeth free of stains. Good oral hygiene habits, including regular brushing, usually will remove most surface stains and keep teeth looking brighter.
Washing away sticky plaque from teeth keeps it from hardening – a condition that invites both decay-causing bacteria and stains. Signs that plaque has hardened are black spots on your child's teeth or teeth that look yellow in color.
Effects of Whitening Products On Children's Teeth
Even when children's teeth are badly stained, tooth bleaching typically is not recommended for children until their permanent teeth are fully developed – usually by the time they reach their mid-teens. Otherwise, it may be easier for the whitening chemicals to penetrate the tooth enamel to the pulp chamber underneath. Connective tissue, nerves, and blood vessels make up the tooth pulp where sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures or pressure can occur. Ingredients in the whitening agents can irritate the tooth nerve, leading to symptoms such as pain, tingling, and cold sensitivity.
Something More to Consider
When considering the use of an over-the-counter teeth whitening product for a child – even an adolescent – a parent should note that the US Food and Drug Administration classifies whiteners as cosmetics, not drugs. Therefore, the manufacturers are not required to provide weight-based dosage instructions on the packaging as they are for children's medications. Consequently, the dental and overall health risks to children associated with exposure to the chemical ingredients found in teeth whiteners are unclear at this time.