During the times of my life when I didn’t have much going on (Saturdays and Sundays, 2008 to 2016), I’d turn to teeth whitening. I was never a teeth whitening hobbyist, as I lacked teeth whitening imagination. I usually used Crest Whitestrips, purchased at Walgreen’s or CVS along with a copy of Us Weekly, some hairbands, enormous Hanes underwear and whatever seasonal shape Reese’s was pumping out at that time of year. (I like the eggs best).
I do not recommend Crest Whitestrips. The active ingredient in most teeth whitening products is hydrogen peroxide, which effectively bleaches teeth better than any other product. But Crest Whitestrips hurt and they were such a production to peel on and off (not to mention the taste and the film they leave on your teeth).
My first DIY teeth-whitening trial was simple, almost elegant: a mix of baking soda and lemon. Baking soda is a fairly gentle abrasive to remove surface stains from your teeth. But please don’t overdo it! I don’t really even brush my teeth, if you’ll remember. I was just being irreverent when I said that, and all the commenters who have publicly shamed my oral hygiene habits have made me want to stop brushing my teeth all together! Out of spite! Anyway, the lemon in this paste, with all its citric acid, will dissolve toughies, too.
I have a fairly adventurous palette, but this was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. It was like salty lemonade, or like a lemon-garlic salt you might slather on chicken before grilling it. To clarify: The garlic taste was already in my mouth, as I had just roasted a head of it in the oven and ate the cloves like popcorn afterward.
Not one to give up, I tried baking soda in another permutation: strawberries and baking soda. A slew of websites, from herbalists to survivalists and beyond, swore to me that the acid in strawberries would bleach my teeth. I pulverized them in my certified refurbished Vitamix, but you can also just use that thing that flattens tomatoes, or a meat tenderizer. Add enough baking soda to make you gag. Let sit on teeth for anywhere from five to 30 minutes. I lasted three minutes a day over the course of about a week. I saw no increase in whiteness, but of course, the only mirror I had to evaluate this was inside my shattered iPhone. All the photos came out grease-smeared for some reason.
By this point, my teeth had absorbed enough baking soda to leaven an entire cookie cake and I had to move on. I knew just what to do. Once, my sister Julia made a guest review vlog called “My Movie 1” for a newsletter I send out every week. In it, she brushes her teeth with an activated charcoal mask while spiraling deeper and deeper into a deranged state of mind. Activated charcoal is carbon that has zillions of little holes in it, so that its surface area expands (or something). If numbers mean anything to you, one gram of activated charcoal has a surface area of 32,000 feet. I don’t have the answers.
I do know that the big secret of any activated charcoal product, however, is that activated charcoal itself does just as much as any trendy sort of face wash, mask or supplement that you might buy touting its benefits. No need for add ons. I bought the capsule form of activated charcoal, cut it open over a piece of tupperware and brushed it on my teeth with my special toothbrush I use for causes like this one.
Unlike so much else in this world, activated charcoal has my seal of approval. It really did whiten my teeth, and it’s something the whole family can use together to become closer. Because it’s a pitch-black powder, you can prank your friends into thinking that you’ve lost all of your teeth or that you’re puking a soul or something when it has liquified in your mouth. Plus, it’s good for hangovers!
I’m going to present one more option for at-home teeth whitening if you want to get serious, but it isn’t a slime made of fruits or bits of carbon. It’s LED blue-light technology! I purchased one called Prime Time Smile, because it was the cheapest at Ricky’s and not a single blue-light company would send me a free sample of their system even though I’m an influencer and a respected blonde icon. The blue light activates hydrogen peroxide, which I applied to my teeth with a special hydrogen peroxide pen that came with the kit. The LED light comes in a pod that you stick between your lips and your gumline for ten minutes at a time. It emits no heat and it didn’t hurt. The company touted its product’s unique “hands free” innovation, which basically means it hangs in your mouth and collects saliva. This device certainly works in the way that any hydrogen peroxide-based product would, but the blue light makes it seem legit, which is probably what they were going for.
By the time this experiment was over, I had whitened my teeth with five different products, and they all fell out as a result. It was worth a shot, though!
Claire Carusillo is a freelance and fiction writer in New York. She writes a weekly beauty newsletter offering off-label product usage advice. Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.