A True-Life Teeth Whitening Diary

As an exclusive online supplement to our February-issue beauty and grooming guide, in particular the quick-start teeth-whitening primer, we decided to take things a step further: Here, Associate Editor Katie O’Donnell gives a firsthand account of her virgin Zoom bleaching experience—what it really feels like, and if all the hype stands up when she heads towards the “white” light.

As far as proverbial guinea pigs go, I was a perfect candidate—rather, my teeth were—to undergo the professional, in-office teeth whitening option we summarized in our latest looking-good feature. As Kenneth Magid, DMD, of Advanced Dentistry of Westchester in Harrison (a 2013 Top Dentist in Westchester) explained during my eve-of consultation, treatments like the most recently popular Philips Zoom are best for patients whose pearly whites appear, more accurately—pearly?—yellow, as opposed to gray.

A coffee-chugging, dark chocolate-worshipping, fairly new fan of Pinot Noir, my grin had in the past couple of years taken on a noticeably “dirty” tinge. This was particularly upsetting because I am into dental hygiene: I look forward to slicking my tongue against the back of my tartar-free bottom row after teeth cleanings. I floss with ardor, and have been accused of brushing overly aggressively (a no-no, I know).

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I started thinking about professional teeth whitening in earnest when I caught myself compulsively comparing my grin to others’ in group photos, as well as avoiding certain lipstick shades in an attempt at downplaying the very off-white subjects they framed. Enter Advanced Dentistry of Westchester, a six-year administrator of the Zoom system—which, to be honest, I’d learned of primarily through a barrage of local Groupon offers.

Upon arriving at the aforementioned consultation, I was presented with no fewer than four page-length forms and releases to fill out, including medical- and personal-history questionnaires rivaling the application I poured over to obtain a short-stay visa to live in Paris. The thoroughness, however, was reassuring, as Dr. Magid explained that pro-level, one-day whitening services like Zoom typically aren’t a good idea for people with sensitive teeth, major prior dental complications, or some serious general health issues.

After a few minutes of chatting with/being inspected by Dr. Magid—who was quick to point out the plaque heralding a patent for the first bleaching-light on the wall, among cheerful family photos of skiing and beach trips (“I know about whitening,” he drove home)—I was deemed fit and confirmed for my appointment early the next day. (I happened to have gone for a routine cleaning the week prior, but you’ll likely have to set one up there or with your regular dentist beforehand if you’re due.)

Dispatched with another couple of papers, I was relieved neither necessitated calling my mother to ask about the family tree, but instead gave me a good idea of what to expect post-“op”: No eating “anything that would stain a white shirt” for 24 to 48 hours; as well as during—a list of movies to choose from as the in-flight entertainment (Harry and Sally jumped out immediately).

Eight am-groggy, I slumped back into the same chair the next morning, switching my viewing option to Orange is the New Black after scrolling through Netflix on the iPhone Dona, the sweet-as-honey assistant who would actually get the damn thing done, handed me. Making sure I was comfortable once reclined, she blindfolded me with the slightly-too-big video goggles (if Marty McFly could get a load of those), inside which I could already see Jason Biggs gesticulating at his TV fiancée.

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My irises protected—and happily occupied—Dona proceeded to narrate over the credit music playing through the ear buds I’d popped in, explaining she was about to apply a swipe of Vitamin E to my lips to keep them hydrated/flexible, before inserting what felt like a large mouth guard-slash-retainer-type device. Next, she went about stuffing gauze around my gums to protect them from the bleaching agents soon to come, which can leave small, white-ish stains behind (that would, she promised, eventually go away).

With my normally camera-shy ivories thrust far more openly on display than I’d otherwise allow, it was time to snap a quick “before” pic.

Like a steadfast Michelangelo of the mouth, Dona (Donatello?) then embarked on her masterpiece, painting on what she referred to as The Material—a bleaching gel (active ingredient: hydrogen peroxide) facilitated by the Zoom-branded UV light, a white floor-lamp-cum-robot-arm kind of contraption (a newer version employs an LED light instead).

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My teeth still forcibly bared in an angry-equine kind of expression, Dona affixed the light head up against them for the first of four 15-minute sessions of stain-zapping

While the blue light, switched on, made no difference sensation-wise, I’d describe the overall feeling during the procedure as…heavy. The weight of the light contraption, which sort of leaned on my face (still supported on an angle) along with the solid plastic-y eyewear made for a significant amount of headgear that, despite the lack of any actual pain, I was conscious of even while squirming through the first days of incarceration for Orange’s upper-middle-class Piper.

Breaks between the short sessions, during which Dona cleaned up and reapplied the goopy-looking gel, eased the bearable tension of the waiting game, and I would have easily fallen asleep if it hadn’t been for the somewhat horse-bit-like situation (still, claustrophobics and restless fidgeters might think twice before signing up).

An hour later, my fangs and I were free, and, after some relieved jaw-stretching and enamel de-gooping, Dona enabled the big reveal: Oh, wow.     

My shade appeared to have dramatically rehabbed to the very-far-light end of the spectrum (at least five shades, or more)—during an hour of watching a made-for-the-Internet black comedy series. Even considering Dona’s warning that it’s typical for treated teeth to bounce back a shade soon after their initial, ultra-gleaming debut, the cumulative results were staggering.

Enamored with my now news-anchor-bright set, I wasted no time worrying about how long they’d last. Dona explained that over-the-counter whiteners—toothpaste, mouth rinses, etc.—are fine for everyday maintenance once the main legwork is taken care of, suggesting OTC whitening strips every few months for optimal upkeep.

At-home trays individually molded to each patient, filled with gel and used for 45 minutes every three to four months for a couple of days, are available, too, upping the cost to $750 from $550 for the in-office to-do alone (which was on the house, courtesy of Advanced Dentistry, for the purpose of this review, though I do plan on ponying up when it comes time to re-whiten). Both methods, she said, should keep teeth looking up to snuff for two to three years, depending on eating habits and care—not bad for a total two hours of office time.

As for immediate precautions, she reminded me to stick to a colorless diet for the next couple of days (my regular macchiato was most tempting, but a misguided venture into some post-whitening forums scared me into avoiding one for an entire week, along with anything served at extreme temps.) The office provided me with a sample-sized white toothpaste (duh) and super-soft-bristled brush, while Dona also noted to use only clear mouthwash, rather than blue or green, over the weekend.

Luckily, I suffered the “zingers”—sharp, shooting tooth pains—she predicted would occur sporadically for the next 24 hours infrequently over only the next 12 or so. (A few Advil every few hours at my work desk curbed their brief, but piercing intensity.) While the downsides were unbelievably limited in my case, that’s not to say there isn’t a flip side, including research and dental experts who aren’t fans of Zoom or its technology.

In my case, I’m still smitten. A month later, I haven’t gotten around to finishing episode two of Orange Is the New Black (a little graphic at first, but it ends up really being about the characters, you know?), but I have relearned to smile with my lips parted in group pictures…at least for the next couple of years. 

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