Updated 17 January 2018

Why are my teeth stained?

We know the rules – brush your teeth twice a day and floss to keep them healthy. But, have you ever wondered what causes those stains that sometimes appear?

Over time you may notice that your teeth are becoming stained. The outer layer of your teeth is called enamel, and although very strong (as strong as marble in fact), it’s also quite porous – and, as a result, quite easy to stain.  

Will it stain?

Dark coloured foods and drinks are often quite high in chromogens (these are compounds that stick to the enamel and cause staining). Acidic foods pose a large threat to your teeth because they can damage the enamel. And then we have tannins (found in wines, plants and seeds) that can make stains last longer on your teeth. 

A good rule of thumb to follow is this: if a food can stain your clothes, it can stain your teeth as well. 

How your teeth stain

Dr Kevin Smith, a Cape Town dentist, says stained teeth are purely a cosmetic issue. “It generally occurs if there are rough areas on the teeth, either stress cracks from grinding, or genetically unsmooth surfaces from the development period, or from rough fillings that need polishing. These areas are often inaccessible to the bristles on a toothbrush or because there is soft or hard plaque sitting on the teeth.”

Fortunately, these stains can be removed fairly easily. “Most stains are removed with a toothbrush,” Dr Smith says. “However, when they are left for too long, you may need to visit your dentist or oral hygienist to have them removed. The actual tooth colour is never affected; it’s always a superficial stain that can be removed – usually by yourself or, occasionally, by a dentist.”

Preventing stains

It’s fairly simple to prevent stained teeth by making a few lifestyle changes. Coffee drinkers and especially smokers should consider cutting back or quitting all together. Also follow a meal with a glass of water to wash away any leftover food. Make sure you brush your teeth properly every day, floss regularly and make sure you see your dentist once a year. 

“Avoid acidic drinks or, if you have to have one, drink water or milk, or eat cheese afterwards,” says Dr Marietjie Weakley from Dental Ladies. “You can use a mouthwash, but avoid brushing your teeth straightaway because the acids weaken the enamel. If you brush your teeth, you risk removing the enamel from the surface that is supposed to protect the teeth.”

When to see the dentist

Although stained teeth are mostly a cosmetic issue, there are some instances when you should see your dentist. “Certain stains are warning signs,” explains Dr Weakley, “and you should see your dentist to make sure it’s not a problem.”

dentist, teeth, oral health, procedure

1. A single dark tooth

If one tooth stands out as being darker than the others, it could be a sign of trauma – if a ball hit you in the face or you fell. It could mean the nerve is dead and will need to be treated to prevent an abscess forming, which could result in the loss of the tooth. 

2. White spots
If you notice white spots, especially at the gum line, this could be an indication that the enamel has been weakened by frequent plaque build-up or acids. You will need to have this treated to prevent these areas from weakening and requiring fillings. “We usually prescribe special toothpastes that contain products like tri-calcium phosphate,” says Dr Weakley. “These new toothpastes can heal small enamel deficiencies on teeth if used regularly together with the correct diet.”

Read more:

Are these habits ruining your teeth?

Acidic drinks can harm your kids' smiles

Teeth may soon repair themselves without fillings


Ask the Expert

Oral health expert

Dr Imraan Hoosen qualified from the Medical University of South Africa in 1997. Together with his partner, Dr Hoosen now runs a group of dental practices around Johannesburg (Lesedi Private Hospital, Highlands North Medical Centre , Brenthurst Clinic, Parklane Clinic, Simmonds Street Medical and Dental Centre, Soni Medical Centre- Newclare). Dr Hoosen can be contacted on 011 933 4096.

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