The Colorful History of Teeth Whitening Kits

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It’s a no-brainer that the whiter the teeth, the better. But how did we get to a point where teeth whitening kits were a multimillion dollar industry? Get ready for some history. The first patent for toothpaste was filed in 1873 by dentist Dr. Washington Sheffield, who was also responsible for popularizing toothbrushes with small heads and bristles. In 1892, Colgate began marketing toothpaste with baking soda to prevent tartar buildup and add flavor, becoming one of America’s most successful brands of all time. Colgate toothpaste with hydrogen peroxide was introduced in the ’50s, and Crest launched a line of toothpaste with fluoride in the ’60s. The first depigmentation product that we now think of as a teeth-whitening powder was called “Intro Bleach,” and hit stores in 1959 as a thick, cakey substance that had to be thinned out with water. It was billed as an intense whitening lotion rather than a cosmetic product. Things stayed at this level for about 30 years: A few companies sold bleaching products like “Aqua White” and “White Beauty,” but home bleaching wasn’t really profitable or popular until it met one very important ingredient: hydrogen peroxide.

A dental hygienist named Jenesis Jones is credited with inventing what we now know as the teeth whitening kit in the late ’70s. Jones was working in a dental office, and she wanted to find a way to get hydrogen peroxide onto patients’ teeth without having to brush it on. According to Jones, she came up with the idea of baking the peroxide into customized trays for her patients, who could then use them at home. Eventually, she sold this idea to 3M (then known as the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company), which began producing teeth bleaching kits in 1980. The 3M name “Oral B” is still used today, even though the company sold the business in 1996. The idea of using trays at home instead of medical settings, where bleaching had traditionally taken place, made teeth whitening kits very popular.

Home teeth bleaching kits were an overnight success. By the end of 1981, there were fifty different brands of whitening products; by 1982 that number jumped to over 100. Most involved baking packets or tubes of peroxide-based gel into trays fitted to patients’ teeth for 30 minutes at a time so they could whiten their teeth in between visits to the dentist. In 1998, the American Dental Association noted that about 60 percent of dentists nationwide used this method.

Despite being a relatively new concept at the time, teeth whitening kits were not exactly cheap. Even now, some kits can cost over $100 for three treatments, and the treatments only last about six months each. That’s considerably more expensive than regular dental checkups or simple home trays made with baking soda and toothpaste. But they do have one very important thing going for them: A lot of people claim they work very well indeed. For instance, Oral B claims to be the No. 1 leading brand of toothpaste in the United States.

As for how to make money with teeth whitening kits, the American Dental Association also credits Oral B for this: Toothbrushes—which are used with most whitening kits—are sold separately, mainly at department stores. With the right marketing, it’s possible that teeth bleaching kits could end up being a bigger business than toothbrushes are today. Perhaps that’s why one of your favorite celebrities is advertising her own version of a teeth whitening kit on TV. But will 22-year-old starlet Heidi Montag be able to rival companies like 3M or Crest? Only time will tell.

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