Do These 3 Natural Teeth Whiteners Really Work?

updated May 3, 2019
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Confidently flashing a smile can indicate confidence and friendliness, and make a strong first impression. So it’s totally normal to chase whiter, brighter teeth by turning to a professional for treatments or reaching for a package of whitener at the drugstore. But for those of us who prefer to take a more holistic (and often less expensive) approach to our well-being, are natural whitening methods — like oil pulling and drinking apple cider vinegar — actually legit or merely old wives’ remedies?

We looked into three of the most common, natural methods that claim to make pearly whites shine, as well as the research and science behind them to see if they truly work.

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Oil Pulling

Oil pulling involves swishing oil (usually coconut oil) around the mouth for 15 to 20 minutes before spitting it out. According to Healthline, the bacteria in our mouth create and form a thin, film-like layer on our teeth. This layer is what we refer to as plaque, which is often the culprit of the yellow color we want to avoid. “When you swish the oil around your mouth, the bacteria ‘get stuck’ in it and dissolve in the liquid oil,” according to Healthine. “Basically, you remove a large amount of the bacteria and plaque in your mouth each time you do this.” In turn, this is said to whiten teeth.

The jury is still out on whether oil pulling is an effective teeth whitener. In a 2017 clinical review of the research done on oil pulling published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, the researchers conclude that after a regular routine of oil pulling “…teeth become whiter; breath becomes fresher; oral cavity muscles and jaws become stronger with excellent achievement of oral hygiene.”

But a 2016 test done on in vitro teeth (i.e. in a lab, on teeth no longer attached to a human) published in the Journal of Advanced Oral Research found that sesame oil pulling was effective in whitening teeth a few shades, but coconut and sunflower oil were totally ineffective at whitening. And many dentists, like the one quoted in this story on, don’t believe oil pulling has any effects at all:

“There’s no good evidence that it whitens your teeth or does anything positive,” Mark S. Wolff, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care at the New York University College of Dentistry, tells SELF. There’s no known biologic or mechanical reason why oil pulling would be beneficial for your teeth, he explains. Basically, he adds, “Somebody said, ‘This would be good,’ and that’s it.”
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Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar seems to be the latest cure-all concoction—allegedly able to ease ailments like weight gain, sunburn, dull chompers, and even undressed salads. As far as tooth whitening goes, ACV lives up to its name. The acetic acid in apple cider vinegar works to remove plaque and stains from teeth, perhaps caused by one too many cups of coffee or glasses of red wine.

The doctors at Water Tower Dental write, “Nearly everyone wants brilliant white movie star teeth, and apple cider vinegar could be an easy, accessible way to get a little closer to that goal. Instead of making expensive, time-consuming teeth whitening products or in-office appointments, just reach in the pantry!”

But before you take a swig straight from the bottle, know that there’s a catch: Because apple cider vinegar is so acidic, it’s critical to mix it with two parts water so it doesn’t erode your teeth’s enamel. The doctors suggest swishing this diluted mixture in your mouth for about one minute. “After rinsing, wait at least 30 minutes before brushing teeth,” they write. “Even diluted, the vinegar can be abrasive, and applying a rough toothbrush to the tooth’s enamel surface right away can do more harm than good.”

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Did you catch the episode of The Tyra Banks Show when Tyra smashes up strawberries and applies the mixture to her teeth, all in the name of whitening? Catherine Zeta Jones apparently relies on this trick, too. Some claim the malic acid in strawberries is capable of removing plaque and stains, similar to the acetic acid in apple cider vinegar.

In 2015—perhaps after viewing the episode—a team of dental researchers and professors set out to prove if this is actually the case. They formed a strawberry and baking soda paste and tested it on extracted human molars (yep, the real deal) to see if a color difference could be observed. The study found that “DIY whitening with strawberries was not effective in whitening, which showed that color change is not due to the acid component in fruits.” So, while both Tyra and Catherine’s smiles truly sparkle, it’s likely not because of strawberries. Enjoy your strawberries as a daily boost of vitamin C, but don’t rely on them for teeth whitening.

Of course, we always advise checking in with a dentist to make sure any whitening solution is the right way to keep you (and your teeth, of course) grinning from ear to ear.