This year alone, about 50,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer. Most concerning is that many of them will be relatively young (under 45) and will have not engaged in typically risky behaviors that lead to the disease, such as tobacco or excessive alcohol use. This puzzled scientists, so they sought to find other potential causes of the disease. One place they looked included the substances used in teeth whitening. The use of teeth whitening products is much more common in younger patients, so could this be why oral cancer is becoming more prevalent?
Teeth Whitening and Oral Cancer
This possible connection was the subject of a study conducted by a team of doctors from Georgetown University Hospital. They hoped to learn more about the ingredients and methods used in teeth whitening and see if they might increase a person’s risk for oral cancer.
Most teeth whiteners use something called carbamide peroxide. Typically, it is placed in a dental tray that is worn by a patient for a designated amount of time to break up surface stains on the teeth. It’s easily available both over the counter and through your dentist. It’s actually composed of about 35% hydrogen peroxide, which is what is responsible for the actual whitening effect.
The study conducted looked at two younger patients who had been diagnosed with oral cancer and had recently (as within a few years) used teeth whiteners.
What researchers were specifically looking at was what happened when this substance came in contact with the mouth. Normally, it is supposed to stay in the tray and on the teeth, but in many instances, more than half of the whitening gel ends up in the mouth. While it is mostly harmless, it is believed that this interaction can cause inflammation and the formation of free radicals in the mouth, both of which can lead to cell damage, which is a common factor in the formation of cancer.
What They Found
In summary, the researchers found no definitive link between teeth whiteners and oral cancer. The free radicals generated during the whitening process are stilled believed to have carcinogenic potential, but so far the data is inconclusive. This study only looked at two patients and had no control group of non-cancer patients, so a larger, more thorough study is needed to determine if there is any connection.
One conclusion to be drawn from this study, however, is that it’s always best to have your teeth whitened by your dentist. They will be able to supply you with custom-made trays to ensure the whitening gel stays where it needs to, or they can also use a method where the gel is painted directly onto your teeth. Various over the counter whitening methods are typically untested to see whether they are able to keep the whitening gel on the teeth, which as this study hinted at, could be potentially harmful.
For now, if you would like to whiten your teeth, you can do so with peace of mind, but be sure to do it under the supervision of a professional.