These Habits Are Making Your Teeth Yellow: Here's What To Do

Photo: Lauren Naefe

It’s early in the morning, and you’re in a hurry. You look in the mirror for one final check before you get out the door: straighten your shirt, smooth the flyaways, check your teeth—yikes! When did they get so yellow?

Yellowing can creep up on you little by little, especially if you love your kombucha, green tea, berries, or coffee. If I’m not keeping up on my prevention and maintenance routine, I’ll realize after a couple of weeks that I need to either pop my teeth-whitening trays in for a touch-up or remove staining using my charcoal toothpaste paired with a stain-removing toothbrush head. The good news is that you can always whiten your teeth after they’ve yellowed, but the even better news is that you can also prevent them from yellowing in the first place! Knowing the mechanism of how and why teeth yellow and stain is essential before we get into how to whiten.

So, why do your teeth get yellow in the first place?

There are two types of stains: extrinsic and intrinsic. They affect different parts of the teeth. Knowing the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic staining can be the key to properly correcting yellowing, maintaining a bright white smile, and preventing stains.

1. Extrinsic color change:

This is also known as surface staining. You’ll find these discolorations on the enamel, the hard outer surface of the tooth. Coffee, tea, wine, or other dark drinks are the culprits, as well as staining foods such as blueberries and grapefruit. As these substances build up on our teeth, their staining properties soak into the enamel, creating discoloration.

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2. Intrinsic color change:

Think of this type of color change as graying hair or wrinkling skin; it happens naturally as we age. Your lifestyle will either accelerate or slow down this aging process. Clenching or grinding your teeth, having insufficient nutrition, or even taking prescription medications will speed up a tooth’s aging, and thus, its yellowing. Since this type of color change occurs inside dentin, the living tissue under the enamel, the only way to correct it is with teeth-whitening trays provided by your dentist—or, of course, preventing it altogether.

So, what’s the cause of your teeth’s color change? Is it extrinsic or intrinsic? Or is it both? Whitening teeth naturally at home can be excellent for extrinsic color change (surface staining) but won’t do anything to change the intrinsic color of the tooth (only professional teeth whitening can change this).

Yes, you can prevent teeth yellowing from the inside out.

I’ll walk you through step by step how to prevent staining, remove stains at home, as well the harmful natural teeth-whitening methods to avoid, which can damage enamel and dentin.

Step 1: Make sure your mouth is closed while you sleep.

Do you wake up with drool on the pillow? Do you snore? These are signs you may want to look into something called mouth taping. Your mouth is meant to stay moist, but when it's open all night it becomes dry, which encourages biofilm buildup. This then seeps into the enamel and stains. A lack of saliva will result in less protection for enamel. Taping your mouth shut while sleeping will help preserve the natural, moist environment that will keep your teeth bathed in saliva and to fend off stains.

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Step 2: Know which foods and drinks cause staining.

I always tell people to start with the foods they eat every day—that’s usually coffee, tea, kombucha, wine, and berries (depending on the season). You don’t have to give up your favorite staining foods, but it is valuable to know which ones are the top contributors and be ready to fend stains off with a new routine. It’s all about reducing how much staining particles stick to the teeth. I highly recommend dry brushing after consuming food and drinks, especially stain-inducing ones. If you are able to dry brush, it’s best to wait at least 30 minutes after eating or drinking, since acidic substances weaken the enamel. Brushing too soon could brush your enamel right off. At the very least, swish some water around your mouth after eating or drinking. This will help keep the particles from sticking to biofilm on your teeth and stains setting in.

Step 3: Learn which ingredients are helping (and hurting).

Oil pulling can keep biofilm from getting too thick and unhealthy. This practice cannot intrinsically whiten or change the color of the dentin, but it is useful for preventing stains in the first place. Antibiotics, specifically tetracycline-based ones, can be extremely harmful to the teeth of children age 10 and under. It creates stains and bands along the teeth, or worse—it can change the shape and structure of the teeth. Pregnant women and children under the age of ten should steer clear of these antibiotics.

Step 4: Go see your dentist regularly.

Seeing your hygienist for more frequent cleanings will also help. If you’ve noticed your teeth are whiter after teeth cleanings, you’re not just imagining it! Your hygienist is able to remove more stains than you can at home with your toothbrush. What should you do between teeth cleanings? Proper brushing and flossing technique will help ensure the prevention of stains. Yes, this is perhaps the most boring tip on the list, but it works! Brushing and flossing prevent biofilm buildup, which in turn, prevents the buildup of staining particles on the tooth.

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Step 5: Nourish your body and nourish your teeth.

Nourishing your body with the proper diet helps teeth fend off yellowing from the inside out. Establishing a healthy diet with plenty of antioxidant-boosting foods, vitamins, and water will help you slow the aging process of the dentin and prolong your bright-white smile naturally. Vitamin K2 is especially important for this process because it's what grabs calcium and sticks it straight into the teeth. Without K2 present, we risk calcium building up in the arteries rather than going into the teeth and bones where it belongs.

Curious about oil pulling? Here's what you need to know.

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