9 Reasons for Teeth Stains & What To Do About It

Yellow teeth

Tooth stains doesn’t just come from having naturally dark teeth or drinking a lot of coffee. Sometimes the reason you’ll see a discolored front tooth is because of something that happened 10 or 15 years ago. Understanding what causes discolored tooth enamel and being able to pinpoint the different types of staining will help you determine the best way to treat it. Not all enamel stain is possible to “whiten” with teeth whitening gel. Some dark teeth stains are way more serious and need to be physically treated by your dentist before you risk losing the tooth altogether. On the other hand, others are quite simple and easy to get rid of.

Why Does Tooth Staining Happen?

Tooth discoloration is a natural response to trauma, external factors, or even an abnormality that occurred while your tooth is developing. To understand what causes discolored tooth enamel, it’s important to be familiar with the basics of your tooth’s anatomy. The outer layer of enamel is covered in thousands of tiny, porous openings called “tubules.” Tubules can trap stain particles, making teeth look darker over time. But the layer underneath your enamel—called dentin—has a natural yellow hue to it too. Darker dentin can make your teeth look stained. There are physical changes that can occur inside of your tooth while it’s developing, because of medication or minerals, that alter the color of your tooth. But for the most part, tooth stains happen because our teeth just naturally absorb stains from foods and the environment we live in. Especially as we get older or expose our teeth to those substances on a more frequent basis than other people.

Cavities vs. Teeth Stains

There’s this really common misconception that when you see a dark spot on your tooth, it’s a cavity. Or you might go as far as to not believe your dentist saying you have a cavity, because you don’t see any staining or discoloration at that location.

Can cavities cause dark stains? Yes. But normally, you’re not going to see a brown or black spot from a cavity unless the decay is already really large and invasive. And at that point, you probably have other symptoms like sweet sensitivity, tooth pain, or a visible opening inside your tooth.

Stained teeth tend to affect multiple tooth surfaces as opposed to just one (except if we’re talking about stains in the chewing surfaces of your back molars, which is an exception.) You’ll typically see the stain across several teeth or various tooth surfaces.

Stain can be removed through professional dental cleanings, whitening, and prevented with great home care. But the only way to remove discoloration caused by cavities is by getting a dental filling.

Types of Tooth Discoloration?

There are basically two types of teeth staining that a person can have: intrinsic stains or extrinsic stains.

Intrinsic Stains

Intrinsic stain is tooth discoloration that is inside of your tooth anatomy. It’s not like buildup on the outside of your tooth that your hygienist or dentist would clean off or polish. Intrinsic stains are more difficult to get rid of.[1]

Extrinsic stains

Extrinsic stain is external tooth staining that’s on the outermost surface of your enamel. Your hygienist usually polishes off all of your extrinsic or surface stains during your dental checkups. If you’re someone who tends to get extrinsic stains, you can tell a noticeable difference in your smile before and after your professional cleanings.

What Causes Tooth Discoloration?

Where do all of those teeth stains come from? Usually one of the following: 

1) Foods & Drinks

In the majority of cases, tooth stain is caused by what we eat and drink every day. Anything that would stain a white shirt has the potential to discolor your tooth enamel. Especially if you eat or drink it fairly frequently. Like those two cups of coffee every morning, your glass of red wine every Friday night, or all the tomato sauce that goes along with your weekly pasta dishes.

Treatment & Prevention

Less frequent exposures and rinsing your mouth out regularly are key. Make a point to rinse with water after drinking dark liquids. If possible, consider drinking through a straw, so that the liquid doesn’t coat the front of your teeth. Professional whitening is the best way to erase any stains that have already formed.

2) Vitamin Deficiencies

Sometimes we see stain on teeth because of taking certain vitamins or supplements. But the same can also be said for vitamin deficiencies. When our body doesn’t have adequate levels of certain vitamins, it can alter calcium levels along with tooth and bone density. Vitamin C and Vitamin D are just a couple of examples. Seeing stain from a vitamin deficiency isn’t very common, but it can occur in someone who is extremely malnourished or has a severe eating disorder. It can also create a chain reaction where—when other infections like gum disease come in—plaque buildup or decay may be what’s actually causing the staining (and not the actual vitamin deficiency.) Otherwise, the deficiency would be so bad that your physician would also be able to see abnormalities in your bone tissues and other parts of your body.[2]

Treatment & Prevention

Always make sure you take vitamins and mineral supplements as prescribed. Especially when you’re pregnant or giving them to a young child. It’s also important to get plenty of natural sunlight to soak up adequate amounts of vitamin D. If you have questions about vitamin deficiencies, be sure to speak with your doctor.

3) Tobacco/Vaping

This is a big one. One of the most problematic causes of tooth stain is from using tobacco. Especially smoking. But chewing tobacco and vaping are also to blame. Any time you put these dark products in your mouth or inhale them over and over, it causes the stain particles to seep deep into the tiny pores/tubules of your teeth. Not to mention your clothing and even the paint and furniture of your home.

Treatment & Prevention

You can use whitening strips but it will only help temporarily. However, the healthiest and the best thing to do is give up tobacco, smoking, or vaping once and for all. Your dental team and/or physician can help you come up with a tobacco cessation plan to break the habit. Give yourself some grace and be patient; quitting cold turkey usually isn’t the best option.

4) Poor Dental Hygiene

Whenever we don’t brush or floss as well as we should, it allows plaque to sit on our teeth for too long. Over time, that bacteria will change the way our enamel looks, either because of stains in the buildup or because of physical changes (like demineralization and tooth decay) it makes to our enamel.

Treatment & Prevention

It’s important to brush for at least two minutes, twice a day, especially along the gumlines where plaque is heaviest. But don’t forget flossing. Floss will clean the areas between teeth, where a toothbrush doesn’t reach. Since cavities tend to form between teeth, along the gums, or in the chewing surfaces first, all three of those areas need plenty of attention when you’re cleaning your mouth. You can also ask your dentist for a fluoride supplement to help combat tooth decay.

5) Medications 

There are specific medications out there that we know for a fact will stain or permanently discolor your tooth enamel. Some of them are so bad, that they aren’t prescribed anymore or are only given to certain people. For instance, tetracycline. This antibiotic can—if given to pregnant women or small children—permanently stain developing teeth and cause them to look blue, brown, or grey. Others may only cause temporary discoloration, which can easily be polished off during your dental cleaning. Such as chlorhexidine, which is a prescription mouth rinse that dentists use to help manage severe periodontal infections.

Treatment & Prevention

Always take your medication as prescribed. No more, no less. And be sure to communicate with your physician and pharmacist if you think you could possibly be pregnant. If your dentist prescribes chlorhexidine rinse, don’t use it any additional days other than what’s prescribed, and be sure to have your teeth cleaned again in the next few months.

6) Cancer Treatment

Some people claim that chemotherapy drugs can stain your teeth and cause discoloration. But what we normally see during cancer treatment is an increase in tooth decay, because of the extremely dry mouth that develops. Xerostomia (dry mouth) increases your risk of cavities because there isn’t enough saliva to rinse your teeth off throughout the day. If you’re about to undergo cancer treatment, make sure to work with your dentist to create a thorough preventative care plan.

Treatment & Prevention

Any individual about to undergo cancer therapy needs to make sure to see their dentist before beginning chemo or radiation treatment. Active cavities need to be treated ASAP. After that, it’s important to have good oral hygiene and begin using supplemental fluoride each day, to reduce your risk of tooth decay during the process. Otherwise, the lack of saliva will put you at an extremely high chance of developing new cavities, even if you had great oral hygiene in the past.

7) Age-Related Teeth Stains

As we get older, our teeth naturally start to look darker and more yellow than they did in previous decades. This is completely normal and it does not mean that there’s anything wrong with your teeth. But for a lot of people, it can cause some self-consciousness. If you used to be a heavy smoker, it could make your teeth look older than they really are, essentially causing premature aging in your smile.

Treatment & Prevention

Age-related tooth discoloration is usually a fairly “easy” fix. The best thing to do is work with your dentist to choose the right type of teeth whitening treatment. You can choose from in-office whitening or home whitening with hydrogen peroxide strips. If you have major discoloration, you also have the option of getting dental veneers to instantly cover up any of the stains or enamel irregularities that you wish you could get rid of. Your choice will depend on whether you just want to address your tooth color or the color along with tooth shape at the same time.

8) Trauma

If you had an injury to your mouth at any point in your life—such as getting hit during a baseball game, having an automobile accident, falling in the bathroom, etc.—you might not see the side effects until years later. Suddenly, that one tooth seems to start turning brown, grey, or blue compared to the teeth on either side of it. These traumatic stains can take years before they flare up, because of how slowly the tooth’s nerve takes before it dies.

Treatment & Prevention

Teeth that become discolored because of physical trauma typically require root canal treatment (because the nerve is no longer vital.) Sometimes internal tooth bleaching is also an option to help lighten the color of the enamel. But normally, dentists will put a porcelain crown over any tooth with a root canal.

If you have an athlete in the family, make sure they’re wearing a protective mouthguard during games and practice.

9) Fluoride

If you ingest too much or too little fluoride during tooth development, it can cause hypermineralization (too many minerals) or hypomineralization (too few minerals) in your enamel. In turn, it leaves white and brown stains across the various tooth surfaces. There might even be pits in your enamel. But the side effects aren’t visible for years, since the deformities occur when your tooth is in the early stages of development and it won’t erupt for several more years.

Treatment & Prevention

Fluoride regulation is extremely important. That’s why dental professionals always recommend drinking municipal water with fluoride in it. Well water, bottled water, and other water sources may not be regulated and as a result, they can have too little or too much fluoride in it. If you’re on a well water system, your pediatrician or pediatric dentist can prescribe an appropriate amount of fluoride to supplement with, depending on your water’s mineral levels.

Types of Tooth Stains & How To Remove Them

If you have a specific color of stain, it’s easier to figure out what’s going on with your mouth. Especially if it’s a discolored front tooth as opposed to all of the teeth in your mouth. Where and what you see will help you best identify what causes discolored teeth in your specific situation.

1. White Tooth Stains:

Yes, there IS such a thing as white teeth stains. Most white staining is actually a result of demineralization, which is the first stage of tooth decay. Typically, the cavity is “stopped” before a hole forms, the area remineralizes, and a white stain is left behind. Traumatic injuries or illnesses can also cause white stains on teeth.

Treatment & Prevention

Good oral hygiene is the best way to prevent white teeth stains. Especially when it comes to brushing along the gumlines, where plaque tends to be the heaviest. And if you’re in braces, you really want to pay extra attention to brushing around (over, under, and in-between) every single bracket, where plaque likes to hang out the most.

Dentists can help treat white spots through resin infiltration or by bonding over them, if severe.

2. Yellow Tooth Stains:

All of our teeth have a natural yellow tint to them. It doesn’t matter who you are. The yellow dentin under our tooth enamel will shine through just a bit, giving off an off-white hue. But yellow staining can also be due to poor oral hygiene, aging, or years of smoking.

Treatment & Prevention

The best treatment for yellow teeth is having them professionally whitened. A take-home custom tray and bleaching gel or in-office treatment will both work just fine. If you have severely dark teeth, you could also consider getting a set of porcelain veneers to completely cover the teeth in your smile zone.

3. Brown Tooth Stains:

The majority of brown staining is purely cosmetic. There may be absolutely nothing wrong with your tooth, except that it’s soaked up stain particles from what’s going in your mouth every day. On the other hand, we’ll occasionally see brown discoloration caused by cavities (especially in the chewing surfaces, right along the gumline, or where teeth touch side-by-side.)

Treatment & Prevention

Since most brown stains come from tobacco, coffee, smoking, or cavities, the best way to prevent them is with everyday lifestyle changes and good oral hygiene. Make sure you’re cleaning your teeth regularly, flossing daily, and using fluoride when appropriate. Consider omitting tobacco products and cutting back on your caffeine when you can. Rinsing with water right after a cup of coffee can also help!

4. Purple or Blue Teeth Stains:

Most of these types of stains come from wine or fruit (such as blueberries or blackberries.) If you drink a lot of smoothies, red wines, or other types of fruit-based products, there’s a really good chance you’ll see purple and blue discoloration in your teeth.

Tetracycline antibiotics can also cause bluish stains if they’re taken during tooth development.

Treatment & Prevention

The type of stain that comes from berries and wines can be extremely difficult to manage on your own. Just think about it - if it were on a white shirt, you might have to throw the entire thing in the trash. Fortunately, professional-grade whitening products can lift these stains out of your enamel (when used as directed.) It’s best to go with a professional whitening system, as opposed to something weaker that you can find over the counter. Try to rinse with water every time you drink wine, to limit new stains from developing.

Medications like tetracycline usually aren’t prescribed as often (especially not to children or pregnant women) because of their history of causing unsightly tooth stain.

5. Black Tooth Stains:

Black stain on teeth can either be no big deal or a major problem. Sometimes a black spot on a tooth means there’s a cavity. Especially if it’s in one of the deep grooves/pits of a back tooth. Otherwise, black line stain along the gumlines or speckled black staining is typically from vitamins, smoking, or even swimming in a chlorinated pool.[3]

Treatment & Prevention

If you have a black stain from a cavity, you need to have your dentist clean it out and fill it immediately.  By the time you can see a black cavity, it’s usually a pretty big deal or has spread to other teeth.

Otherwise, it’s best that you go ahead and schedule a professional cleaning to have your hygienist polish those surface stains off your teeth. They’ll also ask you a few questions to try to nail down exactly what’s causing your dental stain.

Home Care is Key

Most types of tooth staining are preventable. Either by limiting your stain-causing food and beverages, practicing good oral hygiene, avoiding medications that cause enamel staining, or by protecting your mouth with an athletic guard during sporting activities.

When you enjoy stain-causing snacks in moderation and practice good oral hygiene habits, you won’t see as heavy of stain buildup as other people.

One way to help limit discoloration is to rinse with water routinely, especially right after you drink red wine, coffee, tea, or soda. The rinsing will lift away some of the stain particles before they “settle” into your teeth.

Teeth Whitening Treatments

In-Office Whitening

Professional teeth whitening is a fast safe and effective way to treat discolored teeth. The whitening treatment last about an hour and cost around $200 to $400.

Whitening Trays

Whitening trays are custom molded trays that hold a hydrogen peroxide gel or whitening agent to your teeth. The trays are better than teeth whitening strips to keep the gel where it needs to be. Burst offers whitening trays that don't need to be fitted at the dentist.

Whitening Strips

Whitening strips are the most affordable teeth whitening products and are just as effective as professional office treatments. It just takes longer.

Teeth Whitening Toothpastes

Using a teeth whitening toothpaste can help prevent new stain buildup. If you need to actively whiten your teeth, keep a home kit handy and touch up for a few days every 3-4 months and especially after every dental cleaning. Remember whitening toothpaste will not give you whiter teeth but it will prevent new teeth stains.

When to See a Dentist

Tooth staining isn’t always avoidable and can affect even the best of us at times. It’s important to see your dentist at least once every six months for a regular oral health checkup anyway. At these visits, your dentist and hygienist will make you aware of any discolored teeth that requires urgent attention, such as stain from tooth decay or a dying tooth. But if it’s extrinsic stain, they can simply polish it off at the end of your regular dental cleaning.

If you’re developing a discolored front tooth that looks noticeably different from the ones on either side of it, you need to go ahead and see a dentist at your earliest opportunity.