Though they won’t make your teeth instantly jump several shades brighter like an in-office treatment would, whitening toothpastes are a good at-home measure that can assist in subtly removing stains, diminishing the appearance of yellowness, and overall improving oral health. While peroxide is still the gold-standard ingredient for a whiter smile, those concerned about its harshness have a number of alternative ingredients — like fluoride, hydrated silica, and charcoal — they can explore.

Let’s dial it back for a moment and go over some basics. Kami Hoss, a board-certified orthodontist based in San Diego, stresses the importance of taking into account the causes of stains and tooth discoloration — i.e. food and beverages (hello, coffee and red wine), smoking, aging, medications, etc., — in order to determine the correct remedy. Everyone should carefully evaluate a toothpaste’s ingredients and discuss it with their dentists to make sure they’re making the right choices, he adds. Otherwise, there could be negative, long-term effects that go against the goal you’re working toward — for example, you could experience damaged enamel and discoloration with the wrong ingredients.

Now, let’s look on the bright side. “There are a number of good products on the market for whitening that, when used correctly, will not damage teeth,” says Mark Wolff, a professor at New York University College of Dentistry. However, Wolff urges people to have realistic expectations. “The ’tissue test’ seen on commercials — holding a white tissue to the front of your tooth and expecting the same color — is just not realistic,” he says. “Expecting teeth to be brilliant white even after whitening is not always possible.” 

Another piece of advice? Avoid charcoal toothpaste. The anecdotal claims you see floating around the Internet aren’t worth it because “some evidence shows that prolonged use of activated charcoal in toothpaste can potentially wear the enamel and even darken the teeth,” Hoss says. The next layer, dentin, is softer and naturally more yellow in appearance, so you don’t want to reach that level of exposure.

With all of that information in mind, start small with 13 of the best whitening toothpastes, as recommended by the experts. Pair your toothpaste of choice with a trusted electric toothbrush and brush away — at least two minutes per session, twice a day, no exceptions. (Oh, and don’t forget to floss.)

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