Healthy teeth naturally range in color from pearly white to light yellow. However, sometimes your teeth can take on a hue that’s a lot more yellow than you’d like them to be. Fortunately, there are many reasons why this happens, many of which can be quickly fixed.
Keep reading this guide from Flossy to find out the process behind teeth yellowing, the most common causes of yellow teeth, and what you can do to avoid them.
The Structure of the Teeth
To understand why teeth may become yellow, let’s first have a brief overview of how your teeth are structured.
A tooth can be divided into roughly two parts: the crown and root. The part of the tooth that is not visible is called the root. Although the root is implicated in many dental problems, it has little impact on the appearance of your teeth.
The visible part is called the crown, which is what we’re concerned with when it comes to your tooth’s appearance. The crown can be divided into roughly four parts:
- Enamel: This is the hard outermost part of the tooth that takes on its hardness thanks to minerals such as calcium. Because of these minerals, the enamel is white in color. Your enamel protects the more sensitive inner part of your tooth from outside elements and is more susceptible to dental cavities and other wear and tear.
- Dentine: Dentine makes up most of the tooth. It is highly porous and contains microscopic channels which transmit signals between the enamel and the innermost part of the tooth (the pulp). Dentin is made up of various proteins, such as collagen; as a result, it is naturally yellow in color.
- Pulp: This innermost part of the tooth is full of nerve-rich endings and is responsible for bringing oxygen-rich blood to your tooth. The pulp is soft; as such, it is very sensitive to outside elements once a tooth’s enamel begins to wear away.
- Cementum: True to its name, this part of the tooth acts as a type of “cement” that helps the tooth stay attached to the jawbone. While a hard substance, it is slightly softer than enamel and contains proteins such as collagen. Because it is buried deep into the tooth structure, it is hardly ever exposed—unless the gums begin to recede.
How Do Teeth Turn Yellow?
There are two ways your teeth can turn yellow: Intrinsic staining and extrinsic staining.
Intrinsic staining is what happens when the middle layer of your tooth—the dentin—undergoes discoloration. It generally occurs as your teeth are still developing through a process called demineralization.
This type of yellowing is more deep-set and is less likely to respond to treatments that attempt to remove stains from the tooth’s surface. Instead, your dentist might recommend treatments that “cover” the tooth’s crown, such as dental bonding or veneers.
Extrinsic staining is what happens when the outermost layer of your tooth—the enamel—becomes stained. In general, extrinsic staining is less permanent and is more likely to respond to at-home solutions.
While extrinsic stains can take on many colors, the most common stains are yellow, thanks to the various staining agents you come in contact with. This happens when pigmented molecules from certain foods, beverages, and even tobacco products bind to the minerals on your enamel and build up a yellow-ish film over time.
This change is not permanent and will go away once you remove the root causes of the staining. In addition, this type of staining responds quite well to an effective oral hygiene routine, at-home whitening products, and, of course, professional dental treatments.
10 Common Causes of Yellow Teeth
There are many causes of yellow teeth. Fortunately, many of these can be grouped under the extrinsic staining category and can be addressed fairly quickly. Here are the ten most common causes of yellow teeth:
1. Thinning of Enamel
Your enamel may be the strongest substance in the body, but it’s still vulnerable to erosion. In most cases, enamel wears away naturally with age due to your teeth' normal wear and tear. By their 30s, most adults will have lost about a millimeter of their enamel due to chewing food, consuming acidic foods and drinks, and overly harsh brushing.
Enamel is naturally white. Once it begins to wear away, it leaves exposed more of the tooth’s dentin, which is naturally yellow.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to restore your tooth’s enamel. For this reason, preventing the wearing away of enamel (which we’ll cover in more detail below) is the best way to make sure that your teeth don’t turn yellow.
Sometimes, the reason your teeth are yellow has nothing to do with your lifestyle choices and everything to do with your genetics. Some people are born with less enamel on their teeth, allowing more yellow-colored dentin to show through. While being born with less enamel does not always indicate a disorder, some conditions can cause less enamel, such as enamel hypoplasia.
As we age, our teeth naturally take on a more yellow appearance. This is because, with time, your tooth’s white-colored enamel naturally wears away and exposes more of the yellow-colored dentin. This can give your teeth a more yellow appearance—even in the absence of any stains.
4. Poor Hygiene
The most preventable cause of yellowing teeth is poor oral hygiene. If you don’t brush and floss your teeth regularly, then a film of bacteria called plaque can begin to form on top of your teeth. Since plaque has a yellowish tint, it can make your teeth appear less white than they are.
However, this can be easily remedied by seeing your dentist to clean and keep up a consistent oral hygiene routine at home.
Aside from increasing your chances of many dental problems, such as gum disease, tooth loss, and bad breath, smoking has been shown to increase teeth yellowing.
This is thanks to common ingredients in cigarettes, such as tar and nicotine, which bind to the enamel on your teeth and give it a yellow (and sometimes, even brown) appearance.
6. Some Foods
As a rule of thumb, if a given food can stain your clothes, then it can also stain your teeth. Many dark-colored foods such as tomato sauce, curry powder, and balsamic vinegar can stain the outer layer of your teeth and cause them to appear less white than usual.
This is because these foods contain chromogens—which are used in common dyes—which bind to the tooth enamel. While you shouldn’t avoid eating these foods, it is good to minimize how many contacts they have with your teeth and brush your teeth immediately after consuming them.
7. Some Drinks
The same staining logic applies to common drinks, such as coffee, tea, and wine. In addition to being highly pigmented, these drinks also contain tannins—a bitter compound that helps chromogens attach to the enamel.
To avoid staining, you can try drinking through a straw, which will minimize how many contacts your teeth have with the staining agents. In addition, one study showed that adding milk to your tea or coffee can significantly reduce their chances of staining your teeth, as milk can bind to tannins.
However, staining agents are not the only ones that can lead to tooth discoloration. Acidic beverages such as orange juice have also increased teeth yellowing. Common acids can erode the tooth enamel and expose more of the yellow-colored dentin underneath.
For this reason, it is best to drink acidic drinks through a straw or to keep their consumption to a minimum,
8. Use of Medications and Supplements
Some medications can make your teeth turn a yellow color, including certain antibiotics, antihistamines, and antihypertensives. It is important to check with your doctor on any possible side effects of your medications, including their impact on your teeth.
While it’s not a good idea to discontinue them for this reason, sometimes you may be able to make substitutions (under the guidance of your doctor, of course).
It has also been found that liquid iron supplements can cause teeth to stain. While this can be easily prevented by taking an iron supplement in pill form, some people—such as children—may not be able to swallow pills.
A possible solution is to dilute the iron supplement with water and to drink it through a straw to minimize its contact with teeth.
9. Teeth Grinding
Many of us grind our teeth without realizing it. While it is a common response to increased tension and stress, it can cause a lot of your enamel to wear away and expose the yellow-colored dentin beneath it.
Try common prevention techniques, such as stress reduction, if you think you may have an unconscious tooth grinding habit. In some cases, you might benefit from a mouth guard (especially if you grind your teeth at night).
10. Physical Trauma
Physical trauma most often affects children, as they are still developing their teeth. Physical trauma can come from various injuries and disturb how the teeth develop. If the teeth develop without the proper enamel, they can take on a yellowish appearance, which can be very difficult to fix in adulthood.
How To Prevent Yellow Teeth
The best way to prevent yellow teeth is to examine the lifestyle factors that can be making your teeth yellow. If you smoke, drink coffee, and eat staining foods, then the best thing to do is to change these habits and, thus, to get rid of the root cause of the staining.
Once you have examined your lifestyle habits, it is important to pay attention to your oral hygiene and prevent plaque build-up on your teeth. Make sure to brush and floss your teeth at least twice per day. If you’re regularly consuming staining foods and beverages, then we’d recommend upping that number.
How you brush and floss your teeth is equally important. To avoid eroding your enamel (which can exacerbate teeth yellowing), make sure to brush your teeth gently using a soft-bristled toothbrush. In addition, we’d recommend using toothpaste or oral rinses that contain fluoride, which is a key ingredient in strengthening your enamel and making it less likely to wear away.
While a proper oral hygiene routine can take you far, it’s still important to see your dentist for regular cleanings. We’d recommend getting a professional cleaning twice a year.
This is the best way to prevent plaque build-up, which not only yellows your teeth but also increases your chances of developing tartar—a hard deposit that leads to tooth decay.
If healthy lifestyle choices and a proper oral hygiene routine don’t leave you with the results you want, you have plenty of options. You can try at-home whitening as a first approach. Alternatively, you can see your dentist for a professional whitening procedure.
Treating Yellow Teeth With Flossy
The most common causes of yellow teeth are lifestyle factors, such as poor oral hygiene, smoking, and certain food and beverage choices. These can be easily addressed at home with the right oral hygiene routine and whitening procedures.
However, if your teeth yellowing is more deep-set, then your dentist can recommend other procedures that cover the crown of your tooth with a white substance, giving you a permanently whiter smile. To discover your options, schedule a consultation with a dentist from Flossy’s network of professionals.