Tooth discoloration and stains on your teeth are common occurrences that can happen for a variety of reasons. The good news? Many of these stains are treatable and preventable.

Here’s what you need to know about the causes of tooth discoloration and stains, and what you can do to keep your pearly whites looking their best.

Tooth discoloration falls into three different categories: extrinsic, intrinsic, and age-related.

  • Extrinsic. With extrinsic tooth discoloration, it’s likely that the stains are only affecting the tooth enamel, or the surface of the tooth. The most common causes of extrinsic stains include:
    • food
    • beverages
    • tobacco
  • Intrinsic. This type of stain is located within the tooth, which makes it more resistant to over-the-counter whitening products. It often appears grayish. Examples of intrinsic stains include:
    • certain medications
    • trauma or injury to a tooth
    • tooth decay
    • too much fluoride
    • genetics
  • Age-related. When you age, the enamel on your teeth begins to wear away, which often results in a yellow appearance. Many times, age-related discoloration may be caused by both extrinsic and intrinsic factors.

“The main issues for discoloration are typically what we eat and drink, aging, and tooth injuries,” explains Sheila Samaddar, DDS, president of the District of Columbia Academy of General Dentistry.

Food, drink, and tobacco

Certain types of food and drink can move into the outer layers of your tooth structure and stain your teeth. Some of the most common tooth staining culprits include:

  • red sauces
  • red wine
  • tea
  • coffee
  • chocolate

Tobacco use in the form of cigarettes or chewing tobacco can also cause tooth discoloration.

According to clinical research, there is a higher prevalence of tooth discoloration in smokers over non-smokers. Additionally, the research found that there is a higher level of dissatisfaction among smokers with how they look, based on the appearance of their teeth.

Also, according to Tufts School of Dental Medicine, an acidic environment in your mouth can make your enamel more prone to discoloration.

Age, injuries, and antibiotics

“As you age, your teeth can become more brittle, and allow staining or yellowing to occur,” says Samaddar.

When tooth injuries are the root of the problem, sometimes only the damaged tooth will darken.

If you took antibiotics as a child, you might want to find out which ones you were prescribed. According to the Food and Drug Administration, there is a link between taking tetracycline antibiotics as a child and permanent tooth discoloration.

If you’re wondering what’s causing the discoloration of your teeth, Rhonda Kalasho, DDS, of GLO Modern Dentistry, offers the following insight about what can cause surface stains on your teeth.

  • Yellow. People who smoke or use chewing tobacco can develop yellow staining on their teeth. Yellow discoloration can also be caused by:
    • beverages like tea, coffee, or red wine
    • a diet that’s high in simple sugars
    • certain medications
    • poor oral hygiene
    • chronic dry mouth
  • Brown. Brown spots or discoloration can have many causes. Some of the most common causes include:
    • tobacco use
    • beverages like tea, coffee, cola, and red wine
    • fruits like blueberries, blackberries, and pomegranates
    • untreated tooth decay
    • tartar buildup
  • White. A cavity can cause a white spot on your tooth that turns darker as it becomes more advanced. Too much fluoride can also produce white spots on your teeth.
  • Black. A black spot or stain can be caused by:
    • an advanced dental cavity
    • fillings and crowns that contain silver sulfide
    • liquid iron supplements
  • Purple. Kalasho says her patients who regularly consume wine tend to have more of a purple undertone to their teeth.

There are many products and procedures that can whiten your teeth and eliminate or reduce the appearance of stains.

Generally speaking, teeth whitening options fall into three broad categories. They include:

  • In-office treatment. Your dentist will typically use a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide for teeth whitening compared with at-home products. In-office treatment works quickly and the effects usually last longer than other methods.
  • At-home treatments through your dentist. Some dentists can make custom trays to use on your teeth at home. You’ll add a gel to the tray and wear it on your teeth for up to 1 hour a day, or as recommended by your dentist. You may need to wear the trays for a few weeks to achieve results.
  • Over-the-counter products. Whitening toothpastes and whitening strips may be able to diminish surface stains, but are much less effective on intrinsic stains that are located inside your teeth.

Samaddar recommends talking with your dentist before you try any teeth whitening product to ensure it’s safe. Some products can cause tooth sensitivity or gum irritation.

Additionally, make sure to visit your dentist for regular dental cleanings. Regular checkups and cleanings can often help to reduce the appearance of stains and spots.

If you notice a change in the color of your teeth and it doesn’t get better with a whitening product, it’s a good idea to follow up with your dentist.

“If the staining appears to be deep, and if no over-the-counter whitening agents are able to get rid of the staining, it could be something more serious, such as a cavity or demineralization of enamel,” says Kalasho.

If only one tooth is discolored, it may be due to a cavity or an injury to the inside of your tooth. The sooner these types of issues get treated by your dentist, the better the outcome will likely be.

To keep your teeth in good health, see your dentist twice a year for routine exams. It’s often during these appointments that problems are discovered. When treatment is done early, it can help prevent the issue from becoming more complicated.

  • Care for your teeth after eating pigmented foods. If you’re planning to consume pigmented food or drinks, Samaddar recommends brushing and flossing as soon as you’ve finished. If that’s not possible, then drinking or swishing with water can help remove at least some particles that can stain your teeth.
  • Practice good oral health. Kalasho recommends brushing your teeth at least three times per day, flossing daily and also using a water flosser, as well as a whitening toothpaste or mouth rinse. “Mouth rinses and water flossers are excellent options for minimizing those pesky stains between the teeth that are tough to remove,” she says.
  • Modify your habits. If you smoke or chew tobacco, talk to your doctor about a cessation program to quit. You may also want to cut back on foods and beverages that can stain your teeth. If that’s hard to do, make sure you have a toothbrush on hand so you can be proactive about keeping your teeth free of stain-causing matter.

Tooth discoloration is common and can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons. It’s often caused by pigmented food and beverages as well as tobacco products like cigarettes, cigars, or chew tobacco.

Stains that appear on the surface of your teeth can usually be removed or reduced with teeth whitening products or procedures. These can be done by your dentist or you can try at-home products.

Discoloration or stains that appear inside your teeth, known as intrinsic stains, can be caused by tooth decay, an injury, or a medication. Your dentist can advise you on the best course of action for these types of stains.