Why do teeth get discolored or darken?

A healthy white smile is on just about everybody’s wish list. There are many reasons why your teeth may darken. Some we can’t control, such as age or accidents when we are young that may disturb our tooth enamel’s development. That’s why it’s important to discuss any plans you have for whitening your teeth with your dentist. He or she will be able to tell you if your tooth discoloration is simply staining caused by lifestyle factors — such as drinking too much coffee — or may be more a matter of dental health. Although whitening is usually done for cosmetic reasons, your dentist can guide you on what options you have for treating the type of staining you have. The good news is that in many cases reversing teeth stains is within our reach. That makes pursuing a healthy white smile worthwhile.

Tooth stains caused by lifestyle habits:

  • Foods/drinks: Coffee, tea, colas, wines, and some starchy foods such as pasta or potatoes, can create conditions that cause staining.
  • Tobacco use: Smoking or chewing tobacco can stain teeth.

Tooth stains caused by dental health:

  • Poor dental hygiene: Forgetting to brush and floss your teeth can cause plaque and food stains to build up. Skipping professional dental cleanings can also allow stains to start.
  • Disease: Diseases that prevent normal development of tooth enamel (the white exterior of your teeth) and dentin (the more porous “yellower” core under enamel) can lead to tooth discoloration. Certain medical treatments, such as head and neck radiation and chemotherapy can cause teeth to discolor. Some infections in pregnant mothers can affect enamel development in your baby and discolor their teeth.
  • Medications: It has long been known that certain drugs discolor teeth in developing children. The antibiotics tetracycline and doxycycline can affect enamel formation in children under the age of 8. Mouth rinses and washes containing chlorhexidine and cetylpyridinium chloride can also stain teeth. Antihistamines (like Benadryl®), antipsychotic drugs and antihypertensive medications also can cause teeth discoloration.
  • Dental materials: Some amalgam restorations, especially silver sulfide-containing materials, can give a gray-black cast to your teeth.
  • Aging: As you age, the outer layer of enamel on your teeth gets worn away exposing the yellow dentin. Your tooth dentin also grows as you age, which decreases the size of the pulp. The translucency of the tooth reduces, making it look darker.
  • Genetics: Thicker and whiter enamel runs in some families.
  • Environment: During tooth formation, too much fluoride either from environmental sources (high fluoride levels in water) or from excessive use of (fluoride applications, rinses, toothpaste) can cause fluorosis, which look like white spots on teeth.
  • Trauma: During sports, kids can get hit in the mouth. If they are younger than 8, the damage can disturb enamel formation. Trauma can also discolor adult teeth when a sports injury or other impact causes blood flow to decrease to the tooth or the nerve to die.

How common are discolored or stained teeth?

While no one knows for sure how many of us suffer from stained teeth, it’s clear that how healthy and white our teeth are is something we care about. These days, we see a shiny smile as a sort of social status symbol, making whitening products and procedures pretty popular. Most of us (99%) consider our smile our most important social feature, according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

A simple stroll down any drugstore oral care aisle reveals a wide assortment of whitening trays, strips, toothpastes and mouthwashes. Now more than ever, we are putting our money where our mouths are, spending more on both over-the-counter and professional whitening products and procedures every year. If you’re ready to whiten your smile, there are options for every budget — but it pays to know which are safe and effective — and which may do more harm than good.

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