If you notice a dark color on your teeth, that shade could have a couple of different causes. It might be a sign of underlying dental disease. Or it could be because of medication like liquid iron supplements.
If your teeth are otherwise healthy but have a dusky tinge, it may be the result of what you’re putting in your mouth. Coffee can stain your teeth, as can dark-colored sodas and cigarettes.
The sticky film known as plaque can easily build up on your teeth from the food and beverages you consume. And if you’re not diligent about removing it, it might turn into stubborn tartar. Also known as calculus, tartar often looks yellow, but it can appear dingy gray or black, too.
Plaque develops on your teeth and along your gumline when your saliva mixes with bacteria and particles of food left behind in your mouth. You might notice it when your teeth feel sticky or tacky.
It starts to build up on your teeth after eating or drinking, and it keeps growing until you remove it. When the plaque isn’t removed, it can harden into tartar. This is when minerals from saliva harden in the plaque.
Tartar feels rough because it’s porous. That means bacteria can slip down into those pores. Tartar usually starts out as an off-white or yellow color, but it can turn dark in a few circumstances.
Consider these culprits of black or dark-colored tartar:
Food and beverages
Certain substances that you consume can cause tartar to take on a darker hue, such as:
- red wine
- other dark-colored drinks
- sugary or starchy foods
Smoking or using tobacco can stain your teeth and any tartar that might be clinging to your teeth or along your gumline.
Tartar below the gumline
Tartar can creep below the gumline, and blood from the damaged gums may combine with the tartar to create a dark, stained appearance.
Trauma, or damage to the enamel covering your teeth, can also make them appear dark.
Interestingly, the presence of extrinsic black stains alone doesn’t seem to have a connection to a higher rate of dental cavities, according to a 2019 analysis of 13 studies. In fact, the researchers found that people with those black stains actually seem to have a lower incidence of cavities.
But that doesn’t mean you should ignore any dark-colored stains on your teeth. Speak with a dentist about the potential causes of the stains and whether you need to take action.
You also don’t want to ignore tartar because it can build up and eventually boost your risk of developing tooth decay, putting your teeth and gums at risk. It collects along your gumline and can irritate your gums, causing a type of inflammation called gingivitis.
Left untreated, gingivitis can progress into periodontitis, or gum disease.
Your gums may begin to recede from your teeth, and your teeth may start to feel loose. You might experience bleeding or pain. With severe cases of periodontitis, you can experience significant pain, especially while chewing, and you could even lose a tooth.
There are other health risks associated with periodontitis that go beyond your mouth, such as an increased risk for:
- respiratory disease
- heart disease
You can brush plaque off your teeth. A soft-bristled toothbrush, a toothpaste containing fluoride, and some diligence with brushing into all the nooks and crannies in your mouth can help you sweep away plaque before it can harden.
Flossing with string floss or a water flosser can help remove the plaque that’s settled down between your teeth.
At the dentist
Once plaque hardens into tartar, it gets a little more complicated to remove. At that point, you need a dentist to remove the tartar. This is usually a process referred to as a deep cleaning.
The first step is tooth scaling. Using an instrument with a hook or loop on one end, your dentist or dental hygienist will scrape the surface of your teeth to get the tartar off.
If you’ve got a lot of tartar buildup or it’s really stubborn, you may also need the next step. This is called root planing. Essentially, root planing is cleaning below the gumline, removing any tartar that’s built up along the roots of your teeth, and smoothing the roots out.
The entire deep cleaning process may take more than one visit.
Remember that plaque is the precursor to tartar. To prevent tartar from developing on your teeth, you have to focus on the plaque.
Here’s what the American Dental Association recommends:
- Brush your teeth twice per day. If you don’t do anything else in the morning, brush your teeth with fluoridated toothpaste for 2 minutes. Then find time for an encore later in the day or evening.
- Floss daily. Floss all of your teeth every day. A water flosser or dental pick gets the ADA’s approval, too. It gets rid of any food that might be caught between your teeth, and it also helps remove plaque that might be hiding there.
- Limit the sugary snacks and beverages. The bacteria in your mouth feast upon the sugars from drinks and foods that you consume, and that can lead to plaque and tooth decay.
- See a dentist for checkups. Make sure you don’t skip your checkup and professional cleanings with a dentist, usually once every 6months.
If you take part in any habits that might introduce stains to your teeth, you might consider cutting back or cutting them out altogether. Quitting smoking is often difficult, but a doctor can help create a cessation plan that works for you.
As with many health conditions, preventing tartar is preferable to treatment.
You might also want to consider whether you’ve embraced any habits that might predispose you to developing dark-colored tartar.
It might be time to commit (or recommit) to good oral hygiene, and you may be able to ward off the black tartar.