Over the past decade, teeth whitening treatments have exploded in popularity. No longer reserved just for celebrities and special occasions, millions of everyday people now utilize various over-the-counter whitening products to improve the look of their smile. The teeth whitening industry has grown to an estimated $11 billion market in recent years.
With demand so high, tooth whitening systems have become widely available at local pharmacies, big box stores, salons and online retailers. Shelves are stocked full of whitening strips, tray kits, toothpastes, rinses and more that promise to deliver a brighter, whiter smile.
But in our haste to obtain the picture perfect Instagram-worthy grin, it’s easy to get overzealous and purchase more whitening products than we can use up before they expire. So what should you do if you stumble across a still-sealed box of whitening strips that are past the expiration date? Is it still safe to use?
And what if you discover some leftover whitening gel with an expiration date from a couple years ago? Is it worth trying to salvage, or will it no longer be effective?
We’ll take an in-depth look at how to handle out of date teeth whitening products, including:
- Why whitening products eventually expire and degrade in potency
- If using expired products can still potentially whiten and risks involved
- How to maximize the usable shelf life of unopened whitening kits
- Possible ways to try and salvage outdated whitening gels and trays
- More permanent professional whitening options from your dentist
Read on for a thorough examination of what happens when whitening products pass their expiry and whether you should still give them a try to brighten your smile.
What causes tooth whitening products expire?
Teeth whitening systems, like all cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, come labeled with an expiration or use by date dictated by the manufacturer. This is because the ingredients that make up whitening formulas do eventually degrade and become less effective over time.
While unopened kits may technically be used longer, once opened and in use, whitening gels and solutions lose potency more rapidly. Exactly how long a product remains viable depends on both its individual formulation and how well it is stored after opening.
Here are the main factors that lead to the expiration and reduced efficacy of teeth whitening products:
Oxidation Degrades Peroxide
The active ingredient in nearly all dental whitening products is some type of peroxide – usually carbamide or hydrogen peroxide. Peroxide is what chemically lightens stains.
But peroxide compounds are inherently unstable. When exposed to air, heat, light and humidity, peroxide starts to oxidation and break down. This process steadily reduces the concentration and whitening power of the peroxide gel.
Plastic Packaging Degrades Over Time
Many at-home whitening systems utilize plastic trays, strips or syringes to hold and apply the whitening gel. Over months and years of storage, these plastics slowly degrade.
Whitening trays can warp and no longer fit the teeth properly. Pliable whitening strips become dried out and rigid. The seals on syringes and mixing tips also fail over time, allowing air to interact with the gel.
Changes to Texture and Consistency
Over an extended period sitting unused on a shelf, whitening gels and liquids experience changes to their texture and viscosity.
Gels can dry out, becoming cracked or flaky. Bottle and syringes of liquid activator and formulas with separate mixing components can settle and separate. This makes them less effective when applied to the teeth.
Effects of Temperature and Sunlight
How and where whitening products are stored impacts their stability as well. Heat and direct sunlight rapidly speeds up the oxidation process and breakdown of peroxide.
Storing whitening kits in hot conditions like a bathroom cupboard or leaving them in a hot car exposes them to temperature extremes that will shorten their shelf life.
The ultraviolet rays of sunlight also degrade the packaging and interacts with the peroxide in whitening gels to reduce potency much quicker.
Bacteria Grow Over Time
Anything used in the mouth carries risk of bacterial contamination, especially products meant for extended use. Whitening kits used over days and weeks can harbor microbes in the trays, strips, brushes and storage cases.
While preservation methods in whitening formulas inhibit extensive bacteria and fungus growth, some microbial degradation is still possible over months and years of storage after opening. This fouls the product and poses health risks.
For maximum longevity of effectiveness and safety, whitening products should be stored unopened as directed and discarded after opening once the usable lifespan has been reached. Otherwise, the active ingredients and condition of the product deteriorates.
Does Expired Whitening Product Still Work?
Now you have a better understanding of why tooth whitening kits eventually expire. But what about if they are still effective when used past the expiration date?
The answer is – maybe! Expired whitening products don’t immediately become totally inert and useless once they pass the use by date. Deterioration of whitening capacity occurs slowly over time, much like food spoils gradually.
An expired product that has been stored properly may retain some effectiveness, but likely much reduced from its original potency.
Here’s what you can expect if you were to use a tooth whitening kit or gel that is past expiration:
- Gradual Decline in Peroxide Strength – While the peroxide level immediately drops once a kit is opened, an unopened but expired product will slowly lose potency year after year as oxidation changes the chemical composition.
- Possibility of Uneven Whitening Results – As peroxide degrades, its whitening effect becomes less consistent and predictable. You might experience uneven bleaching or strange off-colored patches across your teeth.
- Need for Extended Applications – To make up for the weaker peroxide, you’ll likely need to apply an expired gel for longer periods in the trays or strips to see results.
- Repeated Treatments Needed – More repeat rounds of whitening may be necessary to reach desired shadeimprovement compared to fresh product.
- Risk of Plateau Effect – At some point as the active ingredients break down, an expired product reaches a point of no further lightening no matter how long it is applied.
- Could Cause Sensitivity – Weaker peroxides often take longer exposure on teeth, increasing chances of temporary sensitivity to hot and cold.
- Mild to Moderate Lightening at Best – While stubborn stains may fade slightly, expect minimal brightening benefits compared to when the product was in-date.
The degree of whitening possible depends greatly on how expired the product is and how it was stored. But in general, while an expired whitening system may still help a little, the results are usually underwhelming compared to a fresh kit used as directed.
Is It Safe Using Whitening Kits Past Expiration Date?
While not as dangerous as some people imagine, applying expired teeth whitening product does come with some potential health risks and safety concerns to be aware of:
Skin Irritation Risks
The degraded hydrogen or carbamide peroxide in an expired whitening gel is more unstable and prone to cause temporary irritation of oral tissues. Prolonged contact with gums and lips can result in:
- Redness and inflammation
- Burning or stinging sensation
- Increased gum sensitivity and even receding gums with repeated use
These side effects become more likely the longer a gel has been expired and exposed to air.
Potential Allergic Reactions
Changes to the chemical composition as the ingredients break down mean allergies are more probable from an out of date whitening gel or solution. Rashes, swellings and other hypersensitivities can manifest even if you’ve used the product previously with no issues.
Safety of Altered Formulas
The chemistry of expired products is unpredictable. Components separate, pH changes, microbes grow. We just don’t know how all the changes in an aged whitening kit impact safety when used in the mouth. It’s best to avoid these risks by following expiration dates.
Enamel Damage Over Repeated Use
To achieve some lightening from weaker peroxide, you’ll need to apply an expired whitening gel for longer durations. But extended contact with peroxide risks damage to tooth enamel in the form of:
- Etching of the enamel surface
- Increased surface roughness
- Loss of vital minerals like calcium and phosphate
- Permanent microscopic enamel cracks
Tooth Sensitivity Develops More Easily
Again, longer application times required for expired gels makes tooth sensitivity a more likely side effect. Tooth and gum pain from hot or cold food and drinks may persist even after whitening is complete.
While an expired product probably won’t cause major harm beyond some discomfort and temporary effects, it’s impossible to fully predict. Used properly in-date, whitening kits provide predictable, positive outcomes under safer conditions.
Maximizing Shelf Life of Whitening Kits
To avoid needing to use expired whitening products, the best course of action is maximizing how long your kits remain fresh and usable when stored properly up until the expiration date. Here are some tips:
Check Expiration Dates Before Buying
When purchasing whitening kits, always check for an expiration or use by date printed in a discreet spot on the box or package. Select the kit with the latest expiration to maximize useful life.
Avoid buying bulk multi-packs that contain more treatments than you will realistically use up within the expiry period.
Follow the Storage Instructions
Read the storage conditions specified on the product carefully. Most recommend:
- Storing unopened at room temperature away from steam and humidity.
- Keeping sealed and away from direct light and heat sources.
- Refrigeration after opening and in use to slow oxidation.
Keep Sealed When Not Being Used
Always reseal containers, syringes, tubes and mixing parts when not actively whitening. Try to limit air exposure as much as possible.
Use Up Opened Kits Quickly
Once opened, the countdown begins for whitening kits to expire as oxygen degrades the ingredients. Use up the product as directed within a month or two for best results.
Track Date of Opening
As soon as you open a whitening kit, use a marker to write the date on the box or tube to know when you began using it. Refer back to determine if it’s expired.
Follow this best practices for storage and keeping whitening kits sealed to maximize their usable life once purchased. But also be sure to discard and replace once they do reach expiration.
Attempting To Salvage Expired Whitening Kits
We always recommend discarding tooth whitening products once expired for optimal safety and efficacy. However, some people may still want to try and salvage kits they find that are past expiry:
Test First Before Full Use
Before attempting a full whitening treatment, first spot test the expired gel to gauge its condition. Apply a small amount to a rear molar or bottom incisor and leave on for 5-10 minutes. If you notice no discomfort, you may cautiously proceed.
Mix with New Gel
Try mixing a pea-sized amount of the expired gel with fresh gel to dilute the weakened peroxide and hopefully still get some lightening benefit.
Use Repeat Applications
Be prepared for multiple, consecutive days of whitening sessions to make up for the reduced peroxide potency. Follow package directions for maximum daily use and track any tooth sensitivity.
Have Realistic Expectations
Understand that at most, an expired whitening kit might fade stains slightly, but dramatic brightening is unlikely. Don’t expect noticeable shade change like a fresh kit would provide.
Know When To Stop
If you experience pain, gum irritation or the gel doesn’t spread easily, it’s too old and unsafe to keep trying to use. Rinse out your mouth and dispose of the product.
Again, we recommend against using expired whitening kits because results will often be disappointing and side effects more probable. But if attempting to salvage, take care to monitor for any worrisome reactions.
Natural Teeth Whitening Options With No Expiration Dates
One way to avoid the entire issue of expired whitening kits is to use natural ingredients that whiten teeth. Common household foods, oils and derivatives make effective – albeit milder – whiteners:
Baking Soda – Forms a mildly abrasive paste that helps scrub stains off enamel. But use gently to avoid wearing down enamel over time.
Hydrogen Peroxide – This is the active whitening agent in commercial kits, but at the 3% dilution sold at drugstores, it’s gentle enough for daily use. Swish diluted peroxide around teeth.
Coconut Oil – The lauric acid naturally present has mild bleaching effects on teeth, plus anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory benefits for gums when “oil pulled” through the mouth.
Strawberries – Contain malic acid which helps remove discoloration, plus vitamin C for added whitening power. Mash into a paste and brush onto teeth.
Baking Soda and Lemon Juice – A paste mixed with these two kitchen ingredients combines abrasive and acidic effects. But use sparingly to avoid enamel erosion from acid.
Apple Cider Vinegar – Swishing with diluted ACV removes stains and slowly whitens over time. It also kills bacteria and balances mouth pH.
Activated Charcoal – Known for its absorbent properties to draw toxins out. Charcoal powder brushed onto teeth lifts some surface stains but is abrasive like baking soda.
Fruits like Oranges, Pineapples, Apples – Contain acids and enzymes that gradually breakdown and lift away discoloration and dull plaque buildup. But citric fruits also erode enamel with overuse.
Banana Peels – Believe it or not, but rubbing the inside of banana peels on your teeth for 2 minutes polishes away yellowness! Be consistent for best results.
Some trial and error may be needed to find which natural teeth whiteners work best for you, but they provide a safe option with no concerns over expiration dates compared to traditional peroxide kits. Just be careful not to overuse acidic fruits and abrasives which could damage enamel over time. But used in moderation, these natural methods can maintain a bright smile.
Professional Teeth Whitening for Longest Lasting Results
While DIY methods may freshen your smile temporarily, for dramatic whitening with permanence, professional teeth whitening is the gold standard. Under strict monitoring and optimized application by your dentist, professional whitening achieves:
- Whitening power stronger than any over-the-counter kit – up to 20% hydrogen peroxide compared to 10-15% for at-home trays
- Immediately visible results – average improvement lightness of 6-8 shades in one visit
- Lengthier longevity – professional treatments last 1-3 years vs 6 months for store-bought whitening
- Minimal sensitivity due to precise control of whitening gel on teeth
- Custom-fitted whitening trays prescribed by your dentist provide the convenience of at-home maintenance
- No concerns with expiration dates or storing kits for months between use
- Whitening gel and desensitizing solution mixed fresh chairside just for you
While entailing a higher upfront investment, professional whitening is actually more cost-effective in the long run considering the dramatic and years-long results achieved with minimal hassle.
Over-the-counter kits that expire quickly and only provide temporary stain removal simply can’t match the boosted confidence from long-lasting white teeth achieved through your dentist.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How long can you use teeth whitening gel after opening?
Most whitening gels remain effective for 2-3 months after opening when stored properly and kept sealed. Mixing the formula activates the ingredients, so gels in syringes may last slightly longer than pre-mixed gels. Still, use teeth whitening products within 3-6 months after initial opening.
2. Do whitening strips expire?
Yes, whitening strips have printed expiration dates, usually 2-3 years from when manufactured. However, once opened from the packaging and exposed to air, strips expire much quicker – within 2-3 months. Store strips in their original packaging out of sunlight and humid environments to maximize shelf life.
3. What happens if I use expired whitening gel?
Using whitening kits past their expiration dates comes with reduced effectiveness, less predictable results, and higher chances of tooth sensitivity or gum irritation. Stains may lighten slightly, but full whitening cannot be expected from expired gels.
4. How can you tell if opened whitening gel is still usable?
Inspect that the consistency of the gel is unchanged from when first opened – no clumping, separation, drying out or strange off-odors. Swirl the syringe to check the gel moves as one uniform liquid or paste. If malodors or marked changes have occurred, the product has expired and should be discarded.
5. Can I reuse disposable whitening trays?
The custom dental trays prescribed by your dentist are designed for repeated use over months and years. However, the generic one-size trays, strips, or mouthguards included with over-the-counter whitening kits are intended for single use only. Attempting to reuse disposable trays won’t properly fit teeth and reduces whitening effects. Always opt for fresh trays with each application.
While using out of date teeth whitening products won’t necessarily harm you, it’s certainly not recommended for the most predictable and positive lightening experience. Expired whitening kits come with uncertain chemistry and potency that may irritate, damage enamel and provide lackluster results.
Your best options are to adhere to product expiration dates, store kits properly closed in cool, dark places, and invest in professional whitening for longest-lasting whitening effects. Manage expectations if trying to salvage an expired product and test cautiously before proceeding with full use. But for reliable, noticeable whitening, fresh kits with active ingredients at full potency are always the wisest choice.