September 21st 2021
Teeth whitening pens: do they work?
December 2nd 2021 / 0 comment
Kendall Jenner's Moon, Colgate and even a formula masterminded by top dentist Dr Uchenna Okoye – all the biggest players in oral care are launching smile-brightening pens
There's nothing like a video call to make you notice the minutiae of your face. One of the areas we've become most fixated on? Our teeth, according to research collected by the Oral Health Foundation and orthodontics company Alight Technology.
The survey of more than 2000 British adults in April 2021, found that online video calls changed the way 58 per cent of us see our smile with a third of respondents now more aware of the colour of our teeth.
Leading dentist Dr Rhona Eskander, also an ambassador for Waterpik, has revealed she's seen a 40 per cent surge in enquiries for cosmetic dentistry treatments at her practice – the Chelsea Dental Clinic – since the start of the pandemic.
It seems product innovators are catching on, too, as the global teeth whitening market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of six per cent over the next five years, according to a report published by Aritzon industry analysts.
Joining the army of traditional stain-sloughing toothpastes and at-home teeth whitening strips is a new wave of teeth whitening pens. The paint-on formulas are a cross between the two - more 'leave on' than toothpaste but less messy than a strip. We're not talking Tipp-Ex for your teeth but discolouration-busting formulas that can help counteract the effects of your three-a-day coffee addiction.
Kendall Jenner's Moon Teeth Whitening Pen was one of the first to land with a bang last year, quickly followed by Spotlight Oral Care – a brand developed by two Irish dentist sisters and loved by the likes of Vogue Williams. Even oral care stalwart Colgate has given its Max Overnight whitening pen, launched last month, a beauty-led twist, promising to brighten teeth while you snooze.
How do they compare to other forms of teeth whitening? Top dentist Dr Uchenna Okoye puts them in context for us.
"In terms of potency, professional in-clinic treatment is the 'Rolls Royce' of teeth whitening followed by at-home whitening strips, pens, then toothpastes," she says.
"Think of whitening pens as an on-the-spot solution that can be performed on the go, whether it's on their own or to maintain the results of a professional whitening treatment. Unlike strips, toothpastes or whitening trays, these pens offer a targeted approach – for example, allowing you to brighten up your canines, that are often darker, in line with your front teeth," Dr Uchenna, who has 27 years of experience in the field.
Here, we reveal how the latest formulas get to work, the ingredients to make a beeline for and our pick of the pens that really make a difference.
What to look for in a teeth whitening pen
Head to TikTok and you'll find a staggering 60.4 million videos tagged #teethwhiteningpen – mostly comprised of incredible 60-second transformations on pen-wielding Americans. But Dr Uchenna, who is director of London Smiling dental clinics, sounds a note of caution. Camera filters aside, what you can buy in the US may be much stronger than what's available in your local Boots.
"Rules on hydrogen peroxide – the gold standard bleaching agent – are significantly different in the UK versus the US, " she explains. "In America there are few restrictions regarding the sale of dental products whereas here, the legal limit of hydrogen peroxide in over-the-counter products is 0.1 per cent. In comparison to professional dental whitening treatments – which use up to six per cent – that's quite a nominal amount," she comments.
It's important to manage expectations. The golden rule of thumb for whitening pens in the UK is that like ‘whitening’ toothpastes, whitening pens are really only stain removers. They work on surface discolouration and can take your teeth one or two shades lighter compared with the five or six shades you can expect from a six per cent peroxide treatment from your dentist (who’ll need to check the health of your teeth and gums before you start).
Why don't they market themselves as 'stain removing pens' in that case? Dr Uchenna Okoye wanted to use that very term in her own new pen but was told it wasn't as sexy as 'whitening'.
That’s not to say they don’t have a place. They are an accessible, easy-to-use and safe way to keep your teeth looking white. And according to Dr Uchenna pens are more effiective than ‘whitening’ toothpastes, as you don't spit the formula out so it can spend time getting to work on your teeth. While it means pens can only really get to work on extrinsic staining of the enamel – caused by things like smoking, red wine and coffee – there's none of the pain or sensitivity you can experience with professional whitening.
So, what ingredients should we actually be mainlining when selecting a teeth whitening pen?
"Most use agents – such as sodium bicarbonate – that brighten the teeth via oxidisation. This is a process that releases oxygen, which gets into the pores of your teeth and breaks away colour molecules so your teeth look whiter, " says Dr Uchenna.
"The higher an ingredient appears on a product's INCI list, the more concentrated it will be which, in this case, means it will release more oxygen and have a stronger whitening effect.
And what did Dr Uchenna put in her own pen?
"When formulating MySmile by Dr Uchenna Teeth Whitening Pen, I chose to use an ingredient called PAP (phthalimidoperoxycaproic acid), which works using the oxidisation process – because I knew I could safely include a higher concentration of it," she explains.
As for her reason for omitting hydrogen peroxide entirely: "As a dentist, trust was the biggest thing for me when formulating my products. I wanted the formula to based truly on the science rather than for any marketing reasons," she explains.
And what about pens that say they can be used with an LED light to boost the effects? "There's no evidence to show these can make a difference," Dr Uchenna comments.
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Benefits of teeth whitening pens
Alongside the obvious convenience of these handbag-friendly formulas – and the fact you can selectively target certain teeth – they offer other added bonuses, too.
Some offer a minty breath-freshening effect while Dr Uchenna has incorporated mica into hers – a cosmetic ingredient that delivers an immediate pearlescent finish. Think lip gloss for your gnashers.
Pens also make it easy to avoid the gum line, making them more gentle if you're prone to sensitivity or inflammation here.
How to use teeth whitening pens
Dr Uchenna advises using her pen every day for at least a week but there's one step you really mustn't miss in order to ensure you see results from whichever formula you choose.
"Make sure your teeth are dry when you apply your product so the saliva doesn't wash everything away. Dab them with a tissue then after applying then sit there with a big grin for a minute or so – the longer, the better.
"If you have trays or aligners left from a professional whitening treatment or Invisalign, a good hack is to pop a few twists of your pen inside to ensure maximum contact and minimal saliva," Dr Uchenna explains.
The bottom line - do they work?
Yes, providing you look for formulations containing the ingredients that are truly effective stain removers – that's PAP, sodium bicarbonate and, to some extent, hydrogen peroxide or urea peroxide. Just don't expect a Hollywood-style transformation or the kind of dramatic results you might see on social media using stronger US formulas. We're talking about the kind of brightening effect you'd get from a whitening toothpaste, only in a speedy and handbag-friendly format that allows you to easily target individual teeth, too.
The best teeth whitening pens
Colgate Max White Overnight Whitening Pen, £20 – best for whitening while you sleep
The spec: hydrogen peroxide and polymers to help the peroxide stick – leave on overnight
Claiming to reverse up to 15 years of discolouration in three weeks, the special weapon here are the polymers which do also make the gel feel a little thicker than some, although that's not an issue when you're asleep.
We can't promise it will dramatically banish over a decade worth of Prosecco, Rioja and Starbucks but it's seriously easy to slot into any evening beauty routine with no rinsing out required.
My Smile by Dr Uchenna Teeth Whitening Pen, £23.99 – best dentist formula
The spec: PAP and also mica (a mineral powder often used in shimmering makeup) to add instant polish – leave on
As an industry authority on all things teeth and a member of the American and British Academies of Cosmetic Dentistry, you can trust Dr Uchenna's formulas to really deliver, with the science to back them up.
The toothpaste in her range – My Smile by Dr Uchenna Whitening Toothpaste, £17.99 – has already gained a loyal following, including Get the Gloss editorial director Victoria Woodhall who found this tool to be just as impressive.
"Along with a whitening effect, Dr Uchenna told me she wanted her formula to deliver a modern and non-greasy take on the age-old beauty trick of applying Vaseline to teeth to make them look more lustrous. That was a great bonus for helping me feel more polished ahead of a meeting or special occasion."
Spotlight Oral Care Teeth Whitening Pen, £14.99 – TikTok viral favourite
The spec: PAP and hydrogen peroxide – rinse off after five minutes
The brainchild of sisters and dentists Dr Lisa and Vanessa Creaven, this brand quickly gained a cult following here when it launched in 2016 before landing in the States last year.
This slick tool is the star of countless TikTok videos with people showing off their speedy 'before' and 'afters,' although the UK formula does differ from the US version. In line with the countries' regulations, the pen you can buy here uses 0.1 per cent hydrogen peroxide versus the 6 per cent found in the same product sold in the States.
Designed to be left on for just five minutes at a time, it prides itself on the inclusion of hydrogen peroxide although PAP, again, is the real hard-worker.
Moon Kendall Jenner Teeth Whitening Pen, £20 – best for value
The spec: urea peroxide and essential oils which claim to further brighten and add freshness, leave on
Few A-listers have teeth as white as the Kardashian-Jenner clan's gazillion-dollar smiles. No wonder then, Kendall Jenner's own at-home whitening tool took social media by storm when it hit Boots last year.
Our tester did notice a visible shift in brightness levels after finishing her first pen (like most, it lasts around a month) and told us she would repurchase.
Any stain removal action likely comes almost entirely from the urea peroxide (that works in the same way as hydrogen peroxide) since there's limited clinical evidence to show low levels of lavender oil, honeysuckle and strawberry extract can deliver any brightening effect.
It's also worth noting you get 2.65ml of gel inside rather than the standard 2ml in all the other products we tested (or 2.5ml in Colgate's) making it better value for money.
vVardis Aletsch Instant Healthy Teeth Whitening Gel, £118 – best eco choice and instant whitener
The spec: a patented formula using hydroxyapatite that also instantly blurs away white and yellow spots, leave on
From an award-winning tech-driven brand founded by two Swiss dentist sisters, and big on sustainability, this comes in the form of a little inkwell-like pot and wooden-handled brush with minimal plastic, rather than a pen.
The product itself is pretty unique, too. After years of research, founders Dr Haley and Golnar Abivardi concluded hydroxyapatite was the safest and most effective whitening agent. (Dr Uchenna is a fan of the ingredient, too, having used it in her range's whitening toothpaste for its enamel-strengthening powers).
The problem with hydroxyapatite? It doesn't easily adhere to the teeth. Yet the pair found a way of combatting this problem – via a one-of-a-kind gel that mimics the teeth's own remineralisation process – resulting in this patented innovation.
Billed as 'the first whitening product that's actually good for your teeth,' it doesn't just remove stains, strengthen and protect with continued use, it also immediately covers up surface imperfections – a bit like a tinted moisturiser for your teeth.
Swiss Clinic Teeth Whitening Pen, £59 – sodium bicarbonate and peroxide in one
The spec: sodium bicarbonate and hydrogen peroxide – leave on
This pen boasts a double whammy of hydrogen peroxide and sodium bicarbonate and, unlike other formulas containing peroxide, it doesn't require any rinsing. The magic here mostly comes from the sodium bicarbonate that uses that all-important oxidisation process to help lift away stains.
It uses exactly the same formula as the brand's Whitening System – a kit of custom-moulding trays that you insert a gel into although the makers say this version is for people who want to maintain their results or to spot treat single teeth.
Mr Bright Home Teeth Whitening Pen, £23 – best for fruity flavour
The spec: sodium bicarbonate and essential oils for freshness – rinse off after 30 minutes
Even though there's no hydrogen peroxide in this Australian-based brand, unusually the pen's packaging states to rinse this formula off after wearing it for half an hour.
It's a fairly thick gel so you can really feel it as you slick it on although when it was time to wash it off, it all seemed to have disappeared.
The power player? It's another that boasts sodium bicarbonate high up on its INCI list, accompanied by a whole medley of different fruity oils like peppermint, cranberry and grapefruit to add a mild flavour.