Feb. 3, 2005 -- -- There's a lot that separates the movie stars from your everyday Joe or Jane. Not everyone can have fame or money. But these days, a dazzling smile isn't that far out of reach.
More and more people are going to spas or cosmetic dentists to have a peroxide bleaching solution applied to their teeth. A special light is then shined on those not-so-pearly whites to intensify the whitening effect. Within just an hour, the results are dramatic.
And for those who can't go to the specialist, drugstore shelves teem with over-the-counter solutions.
But in that pursuit of that perfect smile, there may be such a thing as "too white," says Dr. Nancy Rosen, a New York-based cosmetic dentist. The drive to achieve the perfect shade of white can become an unhealthy obsession.
Rosen calls these people "bleachorexics" or whitening junkies. "They look for that whiteness that I don't think they'll ever achieve," she told ABC News' "Primetime Live."
Rosen says excessive bleaching can damage the structure of tooth enamel -- so instead of pearly whites, you can end up with teeth that look very translucent at the edges and almost bluish in color. "This is a permanent change, unfortunately," she said.
There can be more than just cosmetic problems. Suzanne O'Hara of Bethesda, Md., says she overused a professional strength bleach she was supposed to apply for only an hour a day.
"I took it a step further, wanting them whiter faster, and started to do it for three to four hours a day, sometimes sleeping with it in overnight," she said. She says she didn't realize it was going to be a problem.
O'Hara says her mouth became increasingly painful. It started as sensitivity to hot and cold. Then she "started to see blisters on the bottom on my bottom teeth, and discoloration in my gums," she said.
Watch Out for Purple Gums
O'Hara's dentist, Dr. Joseph Kravitz, says many patients don't realize that overexposing their gums to peroxide can cause painful complications.
"When you leave it on too long, it causes inflammation of the gum tissue," he said. The chemicals cause the gums to recede, exposing the roots of the teeth. If you're using these treatments and your gums to turn red or purple or you have pain, you should stop, he said.
Most experts agree that whatever whitening method you use, you can avoid complications as long as you don't abuse the products. But it's probably a good idea to get a thorough checkup first to make sure you have clean and healthy teeth.
Of course, there's one more obvious tip -- one that whitening addicts too often ignore: "They should read the instruction on the product, and they should definitely follow them," Rosen said.
O'Hara says she learned that lesson the hard way. Now that she uses the products correctly, the pain has gone away, and she still has a smile she's proud of.