Five Surprising Causes of Tooth Discoloration (and Five Really Obvious Ones)

Causes of Tooth Discoloration

Flashing a Hollywood-style gleaming white smile is not just for A-listers. Consumer interest in whiter, brighter teeth has never been higher, with a wide range of products – from easy, at-home strips to in-office, in-depth treatments – to suit every budget. But what causes unsightly stains in the first place? Take a run through this handy checklist to learn more.   

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Let’s start with what you may already know: Foods and beverages with dark pigments can stain your teeth, as can a certain nicotine habit. The good news is, these are extrinsic stains -- those that are on the outer enamel -- and they can likely be removed or at least mitigated through a number of cleaning or whitening options.

Check out this list of common culprits:

  • Cup of Coffee

  1. Your Favorite Cuppa

    As that first wave of warm, caffeine-filled goodness washes over you, the little porous pits and ridges in your teeth are soaking it in too. And yes, even tea -- if it’s black tea -- has a staining effect.

    Tobacco Cigarettes

  2. Tobacco

    If you do smoke cigarettes or use chewing tobacco, you’ve probably heard about the negative health effects, so we’ll spare you the lecture (it’s bad for you!) and focus on the dental aesthetics. The nicotine and tar in tobacco can quickly lead to yellowish stains on the teeth, with heavy, regular smokers even seeing shades of brown. These can be especially difficult to remove because of repeated exposure over many years.

    Wine flowing into a glass

  3. Wine

    Wait, what? First we pointed the finger at your coffee now we’re coming for your wine? Alas, yes, wine -- in particular, red wine -- can leave some rather dark stains on teeth, due to the combination of acidity and ruby pigment. And speaking of acidity, even white wine doesn’t totally get off the hook, since its acidity can make tooth enamel vulnerable and more likely to absorb the stains from whatever else you might be having along with that sauvignon blanc.

    Blackberries in a bowl and on a table

  4. Blackberries and Blueberries

    Some superfoods turn out to be super staining! These blue-hued berries pack a wallop in the antioxidant department, so you don’t want to give them up, but be prepared to flash a slightly tinted smile for a while.

    Balsamic Vinegar

  5. Balsamic Vinegar

    Though a salad staple, this is yet another popular contributor to the discoloration game, with the culprit again being the combination of dark pigment and acidity (starting to see a pattern?). For a no-regret vinaigrette you can give white balsamic vinegar a try. While it’s acidity can still weaken enamel, it won’t pack the one-two punch of both acidity and dark color.

Now on to some not-so-obvious causes of off-color smiles due to intrinsic stains -- those that are deep within a tooth’s structure. As you may have guessed, this type of stain is tough to remove, but there are treatment options available that can still give you a megawatt smile, including veneers and bonding.

Watch out for these causes of intrinsic stains:

  • Many varieties of pills

  1. Medications

    If you tend to glaze over that long list of side effects on medications, you may have missed the fact that some of them can lead to discolored teeth. Using common medications such as antihistamines, high blood pressure drugs, and the antibiotics tetracycline and minocycline can lead to intrinsic stains after even just a few doses. Be sure to carefully read all materials that come with your medications and talk to your doctor or dentist if you have questions about how certain drugs may affect your smile.  

    Fluoride in a bottle next to a sink

  2. Excessive Fluoride

    Although it’s intended to safeguard your teeth, exposure to fluoride during childhood, while the enamel is still forming, can actually cause brownish or splotchy white discoloration. Once the enamel is fully formed, fluoride treatments won’t have this effect, so go ahead and swish as you wish.

    Chemotherapy and Radiation

  3. Chemotherapy and Radiation

    Various forms of cancer treatment, particularly head and neck radiation and certain chemotherapy medications, have been known to cause discoloration in teeth. They can also cause changes to the lining of the mouth and the salivary glands, so be sure to include your dentist as part of your medical team if you’re going through cancer treatment.  

    Tooth Trauma

  4. Trauma in a Permanent Tooth

    Take an elbow to the mouth playing soccer as a kid? The offender might have gotten away with just a yellow card but you may have ended up with something more permanent -- a stained tooth! A traumatic injury (like a sports injury) can cause intrinsic stains, as internal bleeding within the tooth can end up discoloring it. While the excess blood delivers immune cells to your tooth, the reddish-brown iron pigments saturate the dentin and cause the tooth to darken.

    Discolored tooth

  5. Aging

    This one is a combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Although dentin does become naturally yellow over time – as your enamel gets thinner and the outer layer is worn away – the ageing process also provides more opportunity for you to stain your teeth, whether that’s by eating too many blueberries, smoking too heavily, or taking medication.

    If you’ve noticed a little (or a lot of) discoloration on your teeth, the best thing you can do is see your dentist. Only a dental professional will be able to properly diagnose what’s going on, and give you a treatment plan that will address it.

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