An obsession with whiter, brighter teeth is sweeping the country. A staggering number of new teeth whiteners have flooded the market over the last 20 years.

Are Americans really that vain? Researchers believe that there’s more to it than that. A 2007 study of corporations across the U.S. revealed that job candidates whose teeth had been whitened were hired more often and received better compensation. Scientists at Penn State University found that clean teeth play a key role in mate selection. A winning smile is not only sexy, but it sends a nonverbal message of health, safety and stability.

No one should go blindly into the pursuit of a blinding smile. Here are five essential tips and things to know about teeth whitening:

  1. Clean Up Your Act

No teeth whitener can combat poor oral hygiene.

You can prevent staining by brushing longer and more often. Follow up with flossing to prevent stains between teeth. Regularly replace your toothbrush.

Quit smoking. Limit dark beverages like tea, coffee, sodas, grape juice and red wine. If brushing isn’t possible after eating or drinking, thoroughly rinse your mouth with water.

  1. Weigh Your Options

There are several options for brightening your pearly whites. One is to have the procedure done professionally in a dentist’s office. Another is to obtain a prescription bleaching agent from your dentist and do it yourself at home. Finally, you can buy an over-the-counter product and follow its regimen.

Weigh the pros and cons of professional teeth whitening. First, who doesn’t love going to the dentist?

The convenience of professional whitening, which can usually be done in just one visit, can’t be beat. Dentists use professional grade products with higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, so results are more impressive and last longer than do-it-yourself jobs.

Everyone would probably have the job done professionally if the cost weren’t prohibitive – on average, professional teeth whitening costs anywhere from $450 to $600.

If finances are an issue, your dentist can make a mold of your mouth and design a customized tray. You can use it at home with prescription-strength gel.

  1. Find Out if Teeth Whitening Is Right for You

Even if you decide to whiten your own teeth, see your dentist first. If you’re not a good candidate for whitening procedures, you could develop dental problems.

Your genes determine what type of tooth enamel you have. Thickness, surface texture and how porous the enamel is all have bearing on the success of teeth-whitening efforts. For example, whitening is slightly more difficult for people who have thin enamel because the color of the underlying dentin shows through.

Tetracycline antibiotics or overexposure to fluoride in childhood may have formed intrinsic stains that pose a challenge.

Cavities must be taken care of; bleaching agents can seep through decay and into the inner tooth. Recessed gums, crowns and veneers also affect the performance of whiteners.

If your dentist gives his or her okay for do-it-yourself whitening, use the home product with his oversight. Strips and whitening trays that don’t fit properly expose the gums. Harsh products or their overuse can seriously damage gum tissue.

  1. Be Forewarned About Tooth Sensitivity

Just about every whitening treatment comes with some degree of burning or irritation. It’s usually mild and temporary. People who have receding gums and tooth sensitivity, however, should think carefully before whitening their own teeth.

Tooth sensitivity may be caused by brushing too hard, tooth decay, gingivitis, extensive dental work or grinding the teeth. Dentists now believe that teeth whiteners contribute to the problem.

If your dentist whitens your teeth, they’ll protect your gums with rubber or a special gel before applying the whitener.

To manage tooth sensitivity, take extra care with your oral hygiene. Ask your dentist to recommend special toothpaste. If you grind your teeth, wear a mouth guard at night.

  1. Do Your Homework

There are dozens of whitening products to choose from. Things to consider before buying are safety of ingredients, effectiveness, convenience and value. All whiteners have pros and cons.

Products that contain one or more peroxides – bleaching products – are somewhat effective against deep stains. Non-bleaching products will only work on superficial stains.

The American Dental Association implores consumers to keep the hydrogen peroxide content to 10 percent or less. Carbamide content should stay below 35 percent. Stronger products should be applied by a professional.

These are the top consumer teeth whitening products and consistent best sellers:

Go Smile Double Action 6-Day Whitening Kit

Go Smile comes with little pockets of gel for rubbing on the teeth. In product tests, users brightened their teeth by three shades after just six days.

This one gets high marks for convenience; you can leave it on during the day and avoid the mess associated with strips and trays. It’s also easier to avoid getting gel all over the gums.

Priced at $41, it’s more expensive than most.

Crest 3-D White Luxe Professional Effects Whitestrips

This product has the longest track record and a nice reputation behind it. After 20 days, test subjects were pleased with their slightly whiter teeth. Crest promises results that last up to a year.

Whitestrips are fairly easy to use, but they tend to slip around and allow gel to seep into the gum line. They are only slightly less expensive than Go Smile.

A+ Professional Strength Teeth Whitening Strips

These are extremely affordable and highly rated by consumers. A 14-day supply costs less than $15. The average whiteness increase is two to three shades, and the low peroxide level makes the product less irritating.

The strips must be worn for 30 minutes every day, and the sticky gel makes it necessary to brush after treatment.

Use the product you buy only as often as recommended. Maintain whiteness by practicing good dental hygiene and keeping up with dental appointments. A paste of baking soda and water is good for removing surface stains.

Whether you’re trying to attract a mate or you just like what you see in the mirror, a bright, healthy smile is worth the effort.

Tomas Urbelionis / Shutterstock.com

Tomas Urbelionis / Shutterstock.com