Going for a Glamorous Smile?

In a society that is crazy about extreme makeovers and cosmetic surgery -- the hard truth is that the great majority of people can't afford it. They also can't afford the more powerful professional teeth whitening either, which costs about $500 but can get teeth up to 10 shades whiter, experts say.

So, corporate America comes up with affordable alternatives. The non-celebrity class can use strips, gels or brush-on teeth whiteners to get a gleaming white smile.

A bright white smile is a great asset, but some people can't seem to get enough.

Twenty-one-year-old Erika Beldau says she's been a teeth-whitening addict for the past three years. "I do abuse it. I do have a problem. I probably whiten them about three times a day," she said.

The way the over-the-counter products work is basically the same. The peroxide bleaches teeth. And while that doesn't eat away at tooth enamel or typically cause any permanent damage, it can penetrate to nerves, and that can cause temporary pain or tooth sensitivity.

But just how effective are these products? "20/20" put some of them to a test.

Under the auspices of the Good Housekeeping Institute, "20/20" tested five popular home teeth-whitening products.

Karen Rauen, a chemist at Good Housekeeping, looked at the newest products in three different product and price categories: brush-ons, trays and strips.

For its largely anecdotal study, Good Housekeeping gathered a group of 18 volunteers to get their tooth shades evaluated by dentist Dr. Louis Siegelman and his staff.

Half were employees at Good Housekeeping, the others responded to a posting on the Internet.

It's hardly surprising logic the darker your teeth are to start, the more change you can expect.

Going into the teeth-whitening test, some of the volunteers, like Sonia Agron, were actually worried that their teeth would become too white.

Volunteers were asked to follow the directions on the labels, applying the whiteners once or twice a day to only their top teeth and do this for up to two weeks, depending on the product.

When judgment day arrived, it wasn't always clear to them or to us frankly, whether there was any difference.

For most of the 18 testers the bottom line was entirely unimpressive. In fact, half the people tested showed absolutely no change in the color of their teeth.

"After the first seven or eight days, I thought for a second they would be a little better. But then I realized you know this morning when I woke up, I don't see a major difference."

But even Agron -- concerned her teeth would be too white -- noticed only a negligible difference. "I think it would like maybe one shade but I could be wrong, it could be wishful thinking," she said.

But, according to Siegelman and his staff, it was actually more than that; Sonia improved four shades using a tray type whitener.

In the test, the trays and strips whitened better than the brush-on whiteners.

But whitening wasn't the only criteria Good Housekeeping used to judge the results. Overall, Crest White strips was the winner when things like ease of use, comfort and consumer satisfaction were included.

One of the volunteers whitened her teeth by three shades using Crest White Strips twice a day for two weeks.

"Based on the whitening results and our consumer ratings, we found that Crest White Strips performed the best overall, with an average shade change of two shades," Good Housekeeping's Rauen said.

Still, she reminded consumers, "If you're expecting a movie star-white smile, you probably won't get it with an over-the-counter product."

The companies that make the whiteners insisted in statements to us that our study was too small and that their clinical studies support their claims that your teeth will look noticeably whiter.

The takeaway here may be that this is a world of whitener beware, and keep in mind that for some this whole exercise might actually be more expensive than having it done professionally, where you are the most likely able to get dramatic improvements of eight to 10 shades whiter.

Beldau said she spends between $10 and $50 a week to keep her teeth white. That's potentially $2,500 a year -- far more than the $500 or $600 she would spend for professional whitening. And that may beg the question: Are whiter teeth the real goal here? Or is it something else?

For Beldau it might be something else. "Teeth-whitening is a great pick me up. If I feel I'm having a bad day. It helps brighten the appearance and it makes me feel better," she said.