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Tooth-whiteners: great if you can handle them, damaging if you can't

Not everyone has problems with tooth-whitening, but everyone with a problem has the same type of problem

Allergies are downright weird, when you think about it. After all, if you or someone you love is “allergic” to something, here’s what it means: there’s a substance which most people find either thoroughly innocuous or downright helpful, yet for some reason your body and immune system react as though it’s a deadly threat.

And if you have an allergy — especially one you don’t know about — you can suffer all kinds of unpleasant consequences, when your non-allergic friends say “Try this [food/soap/deodorant/any other product]; it’s great!” and however great it is for them, it makes you break out in hives, or worse.

We strongly suspect that’s what’s going on with various “whitening” toothpastes, mouthwashes and related products on the market today. If you check the customer reviews for almost any company’s tooth-whitening products — our reviews or anyone else’s — you’ll find a wide collection of similar-sounding complaints ranging from blisters to skin peeling off the roof of the mouth to permanent taste-bud damage. In fact, last September we ran just such a story listing complaints from users of Colgate Optic White. And yet we also heard from people who said “I use Colgate Optic White, it’s great and I’ve never had a problem.”

We don’t mean to single out Colgate here. Indeed, we have a large collection of almost identical-sounding complaints from people who’ve tried Crest Pro Health or Glamorous White tooth-cleaning products: mouth blisters, skin peels, painful burning sensations, and so forth. And yet, for all those complaints, plenty of people can honestly say they use these Crest products with no difficulty at all.

So what’s going on? We’ve written both Crest and Colgate to ask if they’ve had any complaints of possible allergic reactions, but thus far have had no response. However, the website for Oral B (owned by Procter and Gamble, which also owns Crest) does have a page listing “Symptoms of toothpaste allergy,” which include “swelling, redness, dryness, or infection in your mouth.”

Typical complaints

Compare that list of symptoms to these typical complaints from our readers: Brenda from Massachusetts wrote us on Oct. 20 to say, “I was using Crest 3D White and Pro-Health toothpastes. First my mouth became strangely dry. Then I started getting sores inside my mouth. Finally my lips started swelling, like an allergy. It took me awhile to connect this to the toothpaste since I've never had a reaction to toothpaste before…” But when Brenda stopped using these products, she “experienced immediate improvement. My mouth feels so much better! Something is very wrong with either or both of these toothpastes.”

Maybe. Or maybe Brenda is allergic to something in them. (For what it’s worth, we personally have experienced painful burning-mouth whenever we’ve tried any brand of whitening toothpaste — but our roommate never had a problem with any of them.)

Kate from British Columbia wrote us on Nov. 3 to say she started using Crest Pro Health because her dentist recommended it. Kate “first discovered a strong burning sensation in my mouth while using it. I ignored it, thinking my mouth was not yet used to it. Sometime later, I noticed my mouth started to feel swollen and my lips were puffy. … I continued to use the toothpaste and still experienced the strong burning sensation, now accompanied by cracks on the sides of my mouth.”

Yet Kate still did not connect her symptoms with the toothpaste until “My daughter was out of her toothpaste one night so I let her use mine. She started crying, saying it was hurting. I then realized it was not just me and searched Google to read the customer reviews…”

And you know what she found.

Incidentally, WebMD’s four-page discussion of tooth whitening dedicates an entire page to listing “Who should not undergo teeth whitening?” and the list includes anyone with “sensitive teeth and allergies.” (We never so much as suspected we had sensitive teeth or allergies — until we tried a new brand of whitening toothpaste and it set our mouth on fire.)

Still, we remind you: despite all the people who find tooth-whitening products too damaging to use, there’s plenty of folks who think they’re just fine. (And we highly doubt Kate’s dentist had bad intentions, when she recommended Kate try a new toothpaste brand.) If we had to summarize the situation in one sentence, we’d say “Not everybody has a problem with tooth-whiteners, but everyone who does have a problem has the same type of problem.”

We definitely don’t believe that dentists and toothpaste manufacturers are involved in some secret evil conspiracy to scorch the insides of everyone’s mouths … but we find it very plausible, the idea that modern whitening toothpastes might be more allergenic than is generally believed.

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