Professional vs. At-Home Teeth Whitening: The Real Differences - Smile Prep (2024)

Professional vs. At-Home Teeth Whitening: The Real Differences - Smile Prep (1)

Teeth whitening was once a luxury treatment, only available for a sky-high price at the dentist’s office. But today, there are many over-the-counter teeth whitening products with more accessible prices, so more people can enjoy brighter, whiter smiles.

Still, professional and at-home whitening both have their own merits, and you might be wondering which option is right for you. Read on for an in-depth comparison of professional and at-home whitening treatments that will help you choose the best fit for your smile.

Table of Contents

Professional vs. At-Home Whitening: Treatment Overviews

At-home whitening products are available online and in many stores, and they don’t require a dentist’s oversight. In contrast, you can only get professional whitening services by visiting your dentist.

Professional treatments include in-office whitening and custom-made take-home trays you use with prescription-strength whitening gel. At-home whitening can take the form of boil and bite trays, one-size-fits-all trays, strips, pens, and kits with LED lights.

All methods have their unique benefits and drawbacks, so you’ll need to evaluate your needs and desired results before starting treatment.

Effectiveness Comparison

Both professional and at-home whitening will give you whiter, brighter teeth. The big differences are the efficiency and reliability of your results.

Professional Whitening


At-Home Whitening

  • Results in as little as one hour.
  • Can handle even the most challenging stains.
  • Access to the strongest formulas available.
  • The dentist makes custom trays to fit your teeth and gums perfectly.
  • Results could take weeks.
  • May only handle lighter stains.
  • The whitening gel is typically less concentrated.
  • Generic sizing means more risk of gum irritation.

Because you are under a dentist’s care, professional whitening can use higher concentrations of the active ingredient. In-office whitening can use potent whiteners combined with lasers or LED lights to whiten your teeth dramatically in as little as one hour. Even the gel that comes with professional, custom-made whitening trays is usually stronger than over-the-counter options.

At-home treatments, however, often use less concentrated formulas, so they take days or weeks to achieve final results. Many at-home methods can’t lighten your teeth as much as an in-office treatment because they aren’t customized for your teeth, which can allow saliva to seep in and dilute the whitening gel. This can also allow the gel to rest on your gums, causing irritation.

Some at-home methods — like whitening strips and LED-light kits — can achieve better, faster results than others (like whitening pens). Depending on the at-home method you use, it could take a few weeks to see results, and your teeth may not lighten as much as you hoped.

Affordability Comparison

When deciding between professional treatment and an over-the-counter version, cost is a huge consideration.

Professional treatments are more expensive than similar over-the-counter options because you are paying for a dentist’s time and expertise. But whether that expertise is worth the increased cost depends on your budget and priorities.

Professional Whitening


At-Home Whitening

  • Price depends on the method and may vary by dentist and office location.
  • Rarely covered by insurance.
  • Financing varies depending on the dentist and may require a credit check.
  • Set prices for products found online and in stores.
  • Not covered by insurance.
  • Some online retailers offer third-party financing, which may require a credit check.

Cost Breakdown

The cost of professional whitening varies by dental office and by procedure, while at-home methods vary by the products and where you purchase them. Professional whitening prices might also vary by location, since dentists in areas with a high cost of living have higher overhead costs, but it can range anywhere from $300 to $3,500 — usually falling around $500–$1,000 per session.

At-home methods have a wide range of prices, but are always less expensive than professional options. For the most part, the less concentrated the formula, the less it costs. Whitening pens or strips, for example, can cost $20-50, depending on the brand and the strength of the whitening agent. At-home LED whitening kits typically go for $20–$200 because the cost of the LED light adds to the price.

Over-the-counter whitening trays can go for $10–$80, while their custom-made professional counterparts typically cost $100–$600. The custom trays are made from impressions of your mouth and fit precisely, so the trays hold the gel on your teeth better and you lose less of it.


Professional teeth whitening is a cosmetic procedure and therefore not usually covered by insurance. Occasionally, one or two teeth may qualify for coverage if the discoloration results from a dead nerve. Insurance will not cover over-the-counter whitening products.


Many dental offices offer some form of financing, whether it’s an in-office plan or a third-party company like CareCredit or LendingClub. Just beware that third-party financing plans often come with high interest rates.

Over-the-counter whitening brands available through stores don’t offer payment options, but some online retailers may offer third-party financing. Some require a credit check, so be sure to read the fine print.

Quality of Ingredients

Professional whitening material might have higher quality ingredients, but the ingredients in many at-home whiteners are just as carefully selected for effectiveness and user safety.

If you’re considering an at-home method, you may not want to go with the least expensive option. High-quality ingredients often cost more, and less expensive choices might include more fillers and fewer active whiteners, which means it could take a lot longer to see results.

Professional Whitening


At-home Whitening

  • Uses prescription-strength ingredients.
  • Hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide may cause tooth sensitivity.
  • PAP is less likely to cause sensitivity.
  • Uses glycerin as a thickener.
  • Uses other flavoring.
  • PVP helps prevent new stains from sticking to the teeth.
  • Uses preservatives to prolong shelf life.
  • Over-the-counter strength ingredients
  • Hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide may cause sensitivity
  • PAP less likely to cause sensitivity
  • Uses glycerin as a thickener.
  • Uses other flavoring.
  • PVP helps prevent new stains from sticking to the teeth.
  • Uses preservatives to prolong shelf life.

Most professional and at-home whitening treatments use carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide as their active ingredient. Both have been around for decades and are considered safe options. For some users, though, gum irritation or teeth sensitivity can be a problem. Switching to a lower concentration or using the product less time each session may help.

If sensitivity is a concern, try using PAP, or phthalimidoperoxycaproic acid, which is supposed to whiten your teeth without causing gum irritation or sensitivity.

Another common ingredient in most whitening products is PVP, or polyvinylpyrrolidone, which helps prevent new stains from adhering to teeth.

Other ingredients in both products include flavoring agents, thickeners to help the product stay on your teeth, and some preservatives to lengthen shelf life. These vary from brand to brand. Some brands list their products’ ingredients on their websites, while others simply say their ingredient list is a proprietary formula.

If you have any questions about an ingredient, call your local dentist and ask if it’s safe.

Convenience Comparison

With today’s hectic lifestyle, it’s often hard to fit “me time” into your schedule. For those who have the means and the time, a professional whitening experience can be the perfect indulgence. You’re only sacrificing about an hour of your time, but you can walk out knowing your smile could be the brightest it’s ever been.

At-home products let you whiten your teeth without leaving the house, but they also take longer to deliver results. You just have to decide if you’d rather be in and out of a single office visit, or whiten from the couch over a few days.

Professional Whitening


At-Home Whitening

  • Final results in as little as one hour.
  • You have to visit a dental office for treatment or impressions.
  • Some teeth sensitivity is possible.
  • Designed to fit your teeth perfectly.
  • There’s no cleanup necessary.
  • You can rinse and air-dry custom trays after use.
  • Results take several sessions.
  • Sold in stores and online.
  • Teeth sensitivity is more likely with at-home treatments.
  • Some over-the-counter methods might be too big for small mouths.
  • Strips are single-use only, you can rinse trays with water and air-dry them. Pens require no cleanup.

Treatment Time

In-office professional whitening usually only takes one hour during a single office visit, though some treatments may take up to two hours.

Over-the-counter products and professional take-home trays require multiple treatments over several weeks to reach full results. Still, some at-home methods won’t give you the same results as professional whitening and prolonged treatment may cause teeth sensitivity.


One of the nicest things about an in-office whitening treatment is that there’s no clean-up required. Just show up and your dentist will take care of everything.

But even if you opt for an at-home method, cleaning up is relatively simple. If you use trays, you can rinse them with water and air-dry them. Just don’t put them in the dishwasher, since it will warp and possibly melt the plastic. If you choose an LED kit, check the instructions to see if you can clean it with water. With most, you can, but it would be a shame to ruin your light and waste your money.

Whitening strips are single-use and disposable, making cleanup easy. The at-home method with the simplest clean-up is the whitening pen. After you’ve applied the gel to your teeth, simply secure the cap and go about your day.

How do you clean your mouth after whitening? Simple! Most at-home methods require you to rinse your mouth out with a little water. Just remember: no brushing, eating, or drinking for a few hours after whitening.

Comfort Comparison

Whitening agents can significantly affect a treatment’s comfort. Hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide are the most widely used, but both can increase teeth sensitivity and irritate the gums. Non-peroxide options are available, but it may take longer to see similar results. But if you already have sensitive teeth, it may be worth the extra time.

Professional Whitening


At-Home Whitening

  • Trays are custom-designed for your teeth.
  • A dentist customizes the treatment to your needs.
  • Stronger, prescription-strength whitener may cause tooth sensitivity.
  • One size fits most.
  • Over-the-counter whitening is usually less concentrated and might be less likely to cause sensitivity.

Professional whitening is often more comfortable than over-the-counter, mainly because they’re customized for you, while OTC products aren’t. And since a dental professional administers in-office treatment, they can make changes if you are experiencing any discomfort.

If you choose at-home custom whitening trays, your dentist will make them based on impressions of your teeth, trimming along your gum line for a perfect fit. This keeps the whitening gel off your gums and prevents waste.

That doesn’t mean that at-home methods are totally uncomfortable. But they don’t bring the same level of comfort that customized treatment can. If you have a small mouth, whitening trays or strips may be too big for you. If that’s the case, try a whitening strip that you can cut to the exact length you need.

Which Should You Choose?

If you want total freedom with no professional oversight, an over-the-counter whitener may be right for you. But if you want that personal touch and like having a physical dentist’s office available to answer questions, in-office whitening or custom trays might be the better choice.

Who Should Choose Professional Whitening?

Professional whitening is the best option if you want deep whitening in about an hour. While it is much more expensive than other whitening methods, it’s also top-quality treatment. Plus, the results can be long lasting if you limit staining foods and drinks, like coffee, soda, wine, and berries. Results with most other methods last several months at most before you need to touch them up.

Who Should Choose At-Home Whitening?

If you want to whiten your teeth from the comfort of your couch, at-home whitening is for you! At-home whitening is also much more affordable. While the results may take longer and may not be as drastic as an in-office whitening session, there are plenty of different products to choose from.

Compare the Best At-Home Whitening Kits
Compare the Best In-Office Whitening Kits

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I get started with in-office whitening?

Call your dentist or, if you don’t have a regular dentist, search for dentists in your area who offer whitening treatments. You’ll have to schedule a consultation, and they may require an exam and cleaning if you haven’t had one in a while — but that’s good because clean teeth whiten better! If you’re interested in take-home trays, ask how long it takes to get them and how much whitening gel refills cost.

How do I get started with at-home whitening?

Before you begin any treatment, whether professional or at-home, it’s smart to start with a dental exam to make sure your teeth and gums are healthy. Once you have the all-clear from your dentist, look at different options and read product reviews from different sources to find the best fit for you.

What’s the difference between professional whitening and at-home whitening?

Professional whitening offers the benefit of oversight from a dentist. If you have any concerns or questions, you can call your dentist’s office — an option that’s unavailable with at-home methods.

How often do I have to whiten my teeth with at-home whitening?

Most at-home products recommend a monthly touch-up to remove any minor stain buildup.

Can my teenager whiten their teeth?

Most dentists suggest waiting until a child is at least 14-16 and out of orthodontic treatment before whitening their teeth due to an increased risk of sensitivity. Because of the lack of professional oversight, most dentists don’t recommend at-home methods for teens.

How white will my teeth get?

It depends on the method you choose. Professional treatments usually use a stronger concentration of peroxide that can whiten your teeth more significantly than home options.

Will insurance cover my whitening?

Not usually. Teeth whitening is a cosmetic procedure, so insurance plans won’t cover it. Most FSA and HSA plans won’t accept teeth whitening as an acceptable charge either. Sometimes, if a nerve has died and discolored the tooth, insurance may pay for internal whitening, but this isn’t common.

How much does teeth whitening cost?

In-office whitening ranges from $300–$3,500, but typically falls around $500–$1,000 per session, and custom whitening trays usually go for $100–$600. Over-the-counter products range from $10–$200, depending on which you choose.

What is the fastest way to whiten my teeth?

In-office whitening is definitely the fastest way to whiten your teeth, usually taking just one hour. At-home LED whitening is next, because the LED light speeds up the whitening gel’s chemical reaction. At-home LED whitening takes just 8–10 minutes per session, although you’ll need to do it several times to see significant results.

What are some ways to keep my teeth white between touch-ups?

The easiest way to keep your teeth white is to limit staining foods and drinks, like coffee, tea, red wine, and berries. If you can’t live without that morning coffee, try brushing your teeth after you finish, so the stain doesn’t sit on your teeth long enough to penetrate the enamel.

Professional vs. At-Home Teeth Whitening: The Real Differences - Smile Prep (2024)


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