Want Whiter Teeth? Some Things That Make Them Yellow May Surprise You

Mar 13th 2023

These days it seems that everyone wants whiter teeth. With all of the bleaching products available from your dentist, drug store, and TV infomercials, it's getting easier all the time to have teeth like the movie stars.

But one thing most people don't realize is that it takes more than just a good whitening product to get those pearly whites to dazzle. First, you must have enough tooth enamel!

Huh? That's right, tooth enamel. As a dentist, I often had to explain this to my patients who had worn their enamel thin. The enamel is the hard, protective outer layer of your teeth. If you're genetically blessed, it's natural color is a very light ivory which we perceive as "white". If nature didn't give you the whitest enamel, or if you've smoked too many cigarettes, drank too many glasses of red wine or black coffee, or indulged in too many helpings of cherry pie in your lifetime, your teeth may not look as white as they once did. There are many more foods that can stain your teeth, but the point is, we're talking about stain here -- pigments in the enamel that can be chemically "bleached".

Tooth whitening products do a great job of removing stain and can even help people who's natural tooth color is on the grey or yellow side. But here's where whitening won't help, or not nearly as much: if your tooth enamel is thin. You see, the thinner the enamel on your teeth gets, the more the layer underneath it starts to show through it. That second layer, called dentin, is typically yellow in color -- even brownish in some cases. And teeth whitening products do a very poor job of whitening dentin.

So how does tooth enamel wear so thin that you can "see through it"? The most obvious answer is from brushing too hard, and/or with too abrasive a tooth paste (and too hard a brush). Picture the worst case scenario: you're a smoker with a compulsion towards keeping your teeth white and your breath fresh. So, you buy yourself the hardest bristle brush you can find, and stock up on an abrasive toothpaste formulated for smokers. Every chance you get, you're running to the bathroom to scrub that nicotine stain and odor away, and you figure the harder you scrub, the better!

And guess what? In the short run, it works! But in the long run, you're scrubbing away the surface of your teeth, one microscopic layer at time! Eventually, you notice your teeth getting more yellow and assume you're not doing a good job. So, you scrub even harder, longer, and more often. But the yellow color only gets more noticeable. It isn't stubborn stains -- it's the yellow dentin layer starting to show through!!

There's one more important way you can lose precious enamel from your teeth. It's from consuming foods with a high acid content. Citrus fruits are big offenders. After that comes tomato sauce. And carbonated drinks (soft drinks are high in phosphoric acid) can be the worst, because of our tendency to sip or "nurse" them. That just prolongs contact between your teeth and the "acid bath" you're treating them too.

Recently, it's come to light that there's a new offender on the market. You'll never guess...

It's sports drinks, energy drinks and fitness water!! Why? Well, most colas contain one or more acids, usually phosphoric and citric acids. But sports beverages (and several popular soft drinks) also contain organic acids which are known to break down calcium. So they're especially good at eroding your teeth. In fact, recent studies showed they were 3 to 11 times better at damaging enamel than cola-based drinks. And, right up there with the fitness drinks was good old fashioned lemonade!! Who knew?

Studies have also shown that unless you're a professional athlete or marathoner, there's very little advantage to drinking sports drinks over plain water.

What can you do to avoid wearing out your precious enamel before it's time? Here are some pointers:

  • If you use a medium or hard brush, throw it away and get a soft bristle brush. Hard and medium brushes are sold because people still buy them, not because dentists recommend them!
  • Brush thoroughly but gently, it's not elbow grease that gets the job done, and aggressive brushing can erode enamel and cause your gums to recede. If the bristles start to spread out and flatten within a couple of weeks of buying a new toothbrush, you need to lighten up!
  • If you want whiter teeth, go for a toothpaste with whitening ingredients, but not with abrasives. Ask your dentist which ones are best.
  • When consuming acidic food or drink, don't linger over it. Don't "nurse" your lemonade or cola. Don't swish carbonated drinks in your mouth to get rid of the bubbles before you swallow them down. Don't savor that slice of grapefruit too long!
  • Try to get back to basics with your beverages. Nothing is better for you than plain water.

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