What Causes Teeth to Yellow?

Everyone wants white teeth… just walk down the dental aisle at your local drugstore, and you’ll see plenty of products that promise to whiten and brighten your teeth. Teeth whitening is big business, because people feel self-conscious about yellowing teeth. And you may have noticed that your pearly whites aren’t so white anymore. But do you know why?

Many things can contribute to the staining of your teeth, but most stains fall into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic stains.

Extrinsic Tooth Stains

Extrinsic stains on the teeth are those that occur on the surface of the teeth, or the enamel. Although it is easy to stain the enamel, it is also fairly easy to whiten it. These stains can be caused by eating certain foods, as well as smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and drinking coffee, tea, or wine, for instance. A good rule of thumb: if you put something in your mouth that could stain your clothes, it can stain your teeth as well. So dark colored foods and beverages, such as red wine, soy sauce, and even blueberries and cherries, could all be contributing to the gradual staining of your teeth. These foods contain chromogens, pigment-producing substances that can stick to tooth enamel. Sticky foods, such as candies, are also more likely to stain teeth than others.

In addition, acidic foods also contribute to the yellowing process. Anything that erodes the enamel on surfaces of your teeth will make it easier for dark-colored foods and beverages to stick to the teeth.

And of course, poor dental hygiene is the biggest culprit of all: Not adequately brushing and flossing means those foods stick around on your teeth longer than they should, resulting in plaque buildup, which results in even more discoloration.

Intrinsic Tooth Stains

Intrinsic stains occur on the inner structures of the teeth, so they are harder to remove. The most common cause of these types of stains are certain medications, such as some antibiotics, liquid iron supplements, and chemotherapy. Less common are stains resulting from antihistamines, blood pressure medications, and anti-psychotics.

Intrinsic staining can also occur from excessive amounts of flouride, usually originating from water sources with high levels of flouride, such as wells. Some supplements also have flouride, and excessive use of flouride rinses can also contribute to yellowing.

Unfortunately, genetics can also play a role. Inherited disorders such as dentinogenesis imperfecta and amelogenesis imperfecta can cause discoloration, but luckily are rare. Some people, however, are just born with brighter teeth or thicker tooth enamel than others. Thinner enamel translates into naturally yellower teeth.

Age also has a hand in the brightness of your smile. As you age, the enamel thins, and your smile dulls. The best protection you can give your smile against the damage of aging is to ensure proper saliva production, and make sure you’re getting enough flouride. 

Treating and Preventing

The best way to prevent your smile from dulling is to be aware of what you are eating and drinking, avoid tobacco products, pay attention to your dental hygiene routine, and visit your dentist regularly. Take care of your teeth and gums to prevent plaque buildup and decay, and don’t try to rely on brushing and flossing alone. Make wise choices about what goes into your mouth if you’re really concerned, and you can even try using a straw to drink dark liquids, which minimizes the time that fluids stay on the surfaces of teeth.

If you’re unhappy with the brightness of your smile, talk to your dentist or periodontist about the right way to whiten your teeth. And yes, there IS a right and wrong way to whiten, so consult a pro before shopping the dental aisle for whitening products.

Read more at LiveScience.com.