How to whiten teeth naturally – and what not to use

We all want to look our best, and one way to do this is to know how to whiten teeth naturally so we can show off a bright white smile.

(Image credit: JGI/Getty)

We all hope to look our best, and one way to do this is to know how to whiten teeth naturally so we can show off a bright white smile.

A recent Oral Health Foundation survey found that ‘nearly one-in-three (32%) of Brits want whiter teeth while two-in-three (66%) have actively considered having treatment'.

There are a number of reasons why our teeth may yellow or get stained. Some of these we can prevent, such as our diet, others we can’t - like getting older.

Dr Uchenna Okoye, cosmetic dentist at The London Smiling Dental Group, told us."Yellowing teeth can be due to ageing but can also be due to the erosion of enamel, caused by acids, teeth grinding and brushing your teeth with too much force."

Your teeth can also be easily stained by the lifestyle choices you make. These include using tobacco, and the food and drink you consume. "Simply put, anything that stains a white shirt will stain your teeth,’ says Dr Okoye. "The rule of thumb for how white should your teeth be is if your teeth are the same colour as the whites of your eyes you most probably don’t need teeth whitening."

In truth, says Dr Amy Lei-Plant, a dentist at Together Dental in Colchester, ‘the safest way to whiten your teeth is under the supervision of a dentist.’ Otherwise you risk developing sensitive teeth and other oral problems.

Saying that you can still get brighter, cleaner teeth and remove – and prevent – stains by knowing how to whiten teeth naturally. Here are some methods to try, and some to limit or avoid.

How to whiten teeth naturally

1. Activated charcoal

Activated charcoal powder is a natural substance found to pull toxins from the mouth and remove stains. You’ll find it as an ingredient in toothpaste or it is found in health food shops and pharmacies as a powder. With charcoal, it's important to choose the right product.

"You must look at the RDA value, which indicates abrasivity," advises Dr Eskander. "The more abrasive a product the more potential there is to strip away your enamel and expose the underlying dentine, which is yellow in colour,’ she explains. "Dentine is more sensitive and softer than enamel so if exposed can cause health problems."

Instead, both Dr Eskander and Dr Okoye recommend a toothpaste that contains "the next big thing in dentistry" – hydroxyapatite. "This mineral is a building block of natural enamel. It works by blocking all the open pores and smoothing the surface of the tooth," says Dr Eskander.

PARLA PRO toothpaste tabs - Boots | £7
PARLA PRO toothpaste tabs are high in hydroxyapatite which –says Dr Eskander – contains high gloss teeth whitening, sensitivity-reducing and immunity-boosting powers.
Non-abrasive whitening toothpaste - London Smiling | £17.99
We also love Dr Okuye’s gentle, non-abrasive whitening toothpaste range MySmile, which also contains ‘hydroxypatite’ to remineralise, protect and nourish the enamel of the teeth, a bit like serum. 

2. Oil pulling mouthwash

Oil pulling is an ancient Indian folk remedy that's become popular over the last few years. The method involves swishing a tablespoon of coconut oil or another type of vegetable oil around your mouth, much like a mouthwash. You pull it back and fourth through your teeth - a bit like what you did with jelly when you were a kid.

You do this for between 15 to 20 minutes, spit it out and rinse your mouth with warm water. Then, brush and floss your teeth as normal.

The main reason for oil pulling is to reduce the amount of bacteria in your mouth that contributes to the build-up of plaque. While everyone has a certain amount of plaque, if you don't get rid of it, over time it can lead to serious oral hygiene problems such as cavities, gum inflammation and gingivitis - as well as staining.

There is some suggestion that this natural - and cheap - form of teeth whitening may be beneficial as the oil contains lots of lauric acid, which contains antimicrobial properties. However, it's debatable as to whether the practice actually works.

"Sadly, there is no real science or research into this," says Dr Okoye. "It’s an ancient Ayurvedic practice and it’s meant to remove stains. Some say the oil draws the bacteria out but I’m skeptical this works."

Dr Eskander agrees, "The oil can act as a lubricant and help dislodge stains. But it cannot physically whiten the teeth as the oil does not penetrate the surface."

3. Baking soda toothpaste

Baking soda is known as a cheap and easy way to naturally whiten your teeth at home. As you brush, a 2017 study found, the grains work to remove the layer of plaque on your teeth created by bacteria. In turn, this helps to reduce staining and damage to your teeth.

However, it's very important you don't use standard baking-level products as these are likely to be abrasive and could damage your teeth. Also, baking soda on its own doesn't work as an effective toothpaste because it doesn't help to prevent cavities like fluoride toothpaste does. So instead, use medically-approved toothpaste that contains baking soda as an active ingredient.

"The natural alkalinity of baking soda counterbalances the acidic food and drink we eat to protect from tooth decay and gum disease," says Dr Okoye. "Baking soda toothpastes contain small particles which are less abrasive and more able to clean and remove plaque more effectively in hard-to-reach places, as well as removing stains in a gentler way."

She adds, "Baking soda also helps to promote the re-mineralisation of tooth enamel and eliminates unpleasant odours. With 100% recyclable packaging and clinically proven to whiten teeth in three days, try Arm & Hammer 100% Natural Whitening Protection (£4.50 for 75ml, Boots). It tastes fresh too and leaves a clean and polished feel."

Arm & Hammer 100% Natural Whitening Protection - Boots | £4.50
Proven to make your teeth whiter in just three days, try this Arm & Hammer natural whitening toothpaste. Along with offering lasting freshness, it remineralises tooth enamel and neutralises acids caused by food and drink.

You may have heard a suggestion for making a 'toothpaste' out of lemon juice and baking soda. Lemon juice is acidic enough to remove tough stains when combined with baking soda, but this technique isn't recommended by dentists.

4. Practising good oral hygiene

If you want to know how to whiten teeth naturally, learn how to brush your teeth properly and do so twice a day.

Teeth lose their natural lustre due to a build-up of plaque, a naturally occurring layer of bacterial film over the teeth. While a thin layer will be clear, as it builds up it starts to turn yellow. So by regularly brushing and flossing, we can reduce bacteria in our mouths and help to keep teeth naturally white.

"Everyday maintenance involves brushing teeth twice a day, flossing teeth and scraping your tongue," says Dr Okoye, "Don't rinse and spit, so the paste stays on the teeth working."

Doing this with a rotating, round head electric toothbrush will also help get rid of plaque according to recent research. Following a review of multiple studies, it was discovered that electric toothbrushes got rid of more plaque than normal toothbrushes on the whole. After three months of continual brushing with an electric toothbrush, plaque was reduced by 21%. Rotating toothbrushes were also found to be particularly successful at removing plaque, more so than just vibrating toothbrushes.

London dentist Dr Rhona Eskander, who co-founded the Pärla toothpaste tabs brand, recommends that home maintenance should include an electric toothbrush such as Oral-B's Genius Electric Toothbrush, and the daily use floss or interdental aids.

"I also recommend the Waterpik Water Flosser (£67.99, Amazon) to help lift stains," she says.

Oral-B Genius Electric Toothbrush - Amazon | £279.99 
Available in three colours and often on sale from Amazon, the Oral-B Genius offers a professional clean and promotes healthy gums with its position detection feature. Linking up to your phone, this helps you to meet 100% of your brushing coverage.
Oral-B Pro 2 - Amazon | £79.99
At a lower price point but still full of great features is the Oral-B Pro 2. The round toothbrush head oscillates, rotates and pulsates as you brush to move away up to 100% more plaque than a manual toothbrush. It also comes with 2 modes: daily clean and gum care.
Oral-B Vitality - Amazon | £39.99 
For a simple oscillating head electric toothbrush, this one should do the trick. Much like the other models, this electric toothbrush also has a two minute timer to tell you when to stop brushing.

5. Hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical compound with antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic properties. While not technically not a natural way to whiten teeth, when diluted it has been used to treat certain oral health conditions, such as ulcers and gingivitis.

"An oxidising agent which improves teeth discolouration, hydrogen peroxide is used by dental professionals worldwide to provide professional whitening. The whitening gel releases a gas, which then in turn bleaches the teeth. Used properly it is a safe and effective way to whiten teeth," says Dr Lei-Plant.

"However, it has side effects such as increased teeth sensitivity and it needs to be used properly to ensure it doesn’t cause damage to the teeth and gums," she adds.

This is one of the main reasons to leave teeth whitening to the professionals. "The most effective ingredient to whiten teeth (peroxide in the form of carbamide or hydrogen peroxide) are best at 6% hydrogen or 16% carbamide. This percentage is not available over the counter," says Dr Eskander.

"They [the dentist] can make bespoke trays which are much better fitting that any standard non custom-made trays bought over the counter," she says. "A well fitting tray ensures that the gel penetrates your teeth properly. Poor fitting trays can also cause over spilling into the gums causing irritation and even burns."

Spotlight Oral Care Whitening System - Amazon | £39.87
This Spotlight Oral Care Whitening kit contains a full 14-day set of whitening strips. Along with 100ml of whitening toothpaste. Spotlight says the system gently whitens teeth at home safely and provides long-lasting results.

6. Avoid drinks that stain your teeth

Prevention is nearly always better than cure so this should be your go-to if you're looking to whiten your teeth naturally.

Certain drinks are sure to stain your teeth - even after teeth whitening. According to a study in the 2014 European Journal of Dentistry, the worst culprits are tea, red wine, cola and coffee. This is because they contain tannins, a type of micronutrient that naturally occurs in plants. These tannins stain because they cause colour compounds to stick to your teeth. When they do this, they leave behind that classic yellow hue we're trying to avoid. Foods with a strong colour, like curry, will also have the same effect due to their deep pigmentation.

"If you can bear it, swap your coffee for matcha," advises Dr Okoye. "It's known to have protective properties that support gum health."

"Swapping red wine for gin and tonic (no lemon, too acidic) and sipping via a straw reduces stains."

But it's not only the obvious drinks and foods we need to look out for, Dr Okoye says. Anything that has a strong colour has the potential to stain your teeth. "Many patients who have staining on their teeth are shocked as they say they only drink herbal teas."

7. Stopping smoking

If you're a smoker and you're suffering with stained teeth, the habit is more than likely making the condition worse.

A report by the NHS says this is because cigarettes contain both tar and nicotine, which absorb into the pores in your teeth during inhalation and cause a yellow or brown discolouration. Although nicotine is colourless in itself, it turns yellow when combined with oxygen. This means that electronic cigarettes aren't a good option either as the so-called "e-juice" contains nicotine.

"Avoid tobacco products such as smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco,’ says Dr Lei-Plant. "There's strong scientific evidence that proves that they increase the risk of gum disease, mouth cancer and multiple other health problems. So it’s very important to avoid these products - not just from a teeth whitening perspective."

If you're struggling to give up smoking, the NHS has plenty of resources to help - like the Quit Smoking app.

8. Strawberries

Rubbing your teeth with soft fruit may seem a little odd. But nature is a wonderful thing and certain foods can keep us healthy in surprising ways.

Strawberries can give your teeth a slightly whiter appearance after you eat them as they contain citric and malic acid. However, citric acid is also scientifically proven to reduce the hardness of tooth enamel - which helps to protect our teeth from infection.

"Certain compounds in some foods actually have a teething-cleaning effect,’ says Dr Okoye. ‘Malic acid is one of them. It's found in strawberries and is a gentle natural acid that can help dissolve surface stains."

Dr Lei-Plant agrees. "Some fruits such as strawberries contain acids which are metabolised into oxidising agents, which may help prevent or improve staining."

A five minute rub, followed by brush, rinse and floss should do it. However, this isn’t a method you should do regularly. "These fruits and fruit juices contain a high level of sugar and acid that cause tooth decay and enamel erosion. These will do more damage than good for oral health," warns Dr Lei-Plant.

9. Papaya

Like strawberries, papaya "have very gentle natural acids that can help dissolve surface stains," says Okoye. "Gentle is the key word here."

Follow the same principle as if you were using strawberries. Papaya carries the same risks in terms of sugar and acid content, though, so do this very occasionally.

10. Pineapple

If you like fruit, Dr Okoye also suggests adding pineapple to your fruit bowl. "Pineapple contains a plaque fighting enzyme called bromelain that breaks up plaque and acts as a natural stain remover."

Bromelain is a powerful enzyme that’s known to provide a variety of other benefits. It’s anti-inflammatory, improves digestion and can relieve sinusitis.

A 2020 study found that “bromelain bleaching gels resulted in a similar colour change as the carbamide peroxide gel”. While it’s not recommended that you make a habit of rubbing your teeth with fruit “a diet rich in some types of fruits or vegetables, which contains large amounts of organic acids, seems to preserve or improve the colour of the teeth”.

As with other fruits, use sparingly as a teeth whitener. Better still, add it to your diet in whole fruit form, rather than rubbing it on your teeth or drinking as a juice.

11. Apple cider vinegar

Touted as a natural teeth whitener by some, toothpaste brand Colgate suggests making a paste that’s “two parts apple cider vinegar to one part baking soda…to remove stains and whiten your teeth.”

Our experts are less certain. Dr Lei-Plant points out that apple cider vinegar contains "acid which causes tooth decay and enamel erosion."

Dr Okoye adds, "Although this is vinegar, it's an alkaline in the body if you drink it. However, this is better for your insides rather than your teeth."

What to avoid when whitening your teeth naturally

As mentioned, there's plenty to avoid when whitening your teeth.

  • Lemon - Due to the high quantities of citric acid, this citrus fruit is best avoided when it comes to teeth whitening.
  • Soft drinks - These often contain acid which can lead to increased staining due to erosion of the tooth enamel.
  • Baking soda - Buy baking soda toothpaste rather than using baking soda from the kitchen cupboard.
  • Pickled foods - These contain sugar which can cause cavities. But pickled foods also contain acid which contributes to the breaking down of the enamel on your teeth.
  • Activated charcoal - This hasn't been found to be safe or effective. The American Dental Association have also said that this is an abrasive product that is powerful enough to damage the enamel of your teeth.
  • Apple cider vinegar - As mentioned, this contains acid that can lead to tooth decay and enamel erosion.

When it comes to tooth whitening, it's best to always speak to a professional.

Debra Waters
Freelance Lifestyle Writer

Debra Waters is an experienced online editor and parenting writer. She also has a strong background on health, wellbeing, beauty, and food. She currently writes for Goodto and Woman&Home, and print publications Woman, Woman’s Own, and Woman’s Weekly. Debra has written for What to Expect, Everyday Health, and Time Out. In addition, she has had articles published in The Telegraph and The Big Issue.