If recent toothpaste commercials prompted you to try the ‘tissue test’ and hold a bright white tissue up against your smile, chances are your suddenly lackluster-looking chompers made you feel self-conscious. After all, most of us aim for pearly whites—especially since research shows someone’s teeth influence our first impressions of them. But before you spend your paycheck on laser or at-home treatments, you should probably figure out what’s yellowing your teeth in the first place—because prevention is much cheaper!
It’s most likely one of these six culprits.
1. Medication Mayhem
That’s right, the very medicine you trust to support your health could actually be standing in between you and whiter teeth.
“Medications such as anti-histamines and anti-hypertensives can leave people with a dry mouth, which leads to staining,” says Mazen Chehab, D.M.D., of Town Center Family Dentistry. (Being on multiple medications at once can also have this effect.) You see, your saliva actually helps protect your teeth from stain-causing bacteria, acids, and leftover food—and without enough, your teeth are left unprotected.
Since giving up medicine isn’t always an option, the Mayo Clinic recommends drinking plenty of water—but not coffee or soft drinks, which also dry out your mouth—and chewing sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva production.
2. You Are What You Eat (And Drink)
If you’re a connoisseur of tea, coffee, soda, wine, curry, or literally any food or drink that has some color to it (processed foods included), chances are you’re staining your teeth. Even those innocent-looking blueberries in your morning oatmeal can contribute to discoloration!
No one expects you to give up your nightly glass of Pinot Noir, but you should rinse your mouth out with water after eating or drinking anything particularly pigmented, says Gene A. Sambataro, D.D.S., F.A.G.D., of Julian Center Dentistry. You can also try a whitening activated charcoal toothpaste like My Magic Mud to ward off some inevitable food and drink staining, he says.
3. Reflux Redux
As if the discomfort of acid reflux isn’t crummy enough, that gurgly acid can also discolor your teeth.
“Acid reflux, bulemia, and even vomiting during pregnancy, lead to acid erosion of the outer white enamel layer of our teeth, exposing the naturally-yellow inner dentin layer,” says Chehab. (Drinking a lot of soda can also have this unfortunate effect.)
Unlike food-, drink-, or dry mouth-related stains, a yellow smile caused by acid erosion is difficult to correct because you can’t bleach the inner layer of your teeth. “Some companies have developed pastes and gels using ingredients like tri-calcium phosphate to try to re-mineralize the white enamel layer, but that’s as close as we can get to ‘reversing’ the process,” Chehab says.
4. Wear and Tear
If you brush with a firm toothbrush, handle with care; all that extra elbow grease in the name of clean, shiny teeth can do more harm than good. In fact, many of our seemingly harmless day-to-day behaviors can contribute to unwanted stains over time. Grinding or clenching your teeth, using abrasive teeth-whitening remedies too often, and brushing too vigorously with a hard-bristled brush can wear down your enamel, revealing more and more of that yellowy inner tooth layer, says Chehab.
Treasure your chompers by brushing gently with a soft toothbrush, seeing your dentist if you clench or grind, and avoiding DIY teeth-whitening treatments that use abrasive ingredients, like baking soda, he recommends.
5. Age Effects
Like it or not, we all get older—and each passing birthday affects the state of our chompers. “As we age, the nerves in our teeth shrink and the teeth become darker,” says Scott Asnis, D.D.S., CEO and founder of dentistry franchise Dental365.
Since we can’t stop the clock, Asnis strongly recommends consistent dental cleanings to help your teeth stand the test of time. “Regular dental visits and professional-strength whitening products can help with yellowing, and your dentist can help you find the care options specifically catered to your needs,” he says.
Any dentist will tell you that if you smoke, you’re going to end up with stained teeth. In fact, one study found that 81 percent of daily smokers reported having oral health issues within the last six months, with discoloration being their greatest concern (followed by dry mouth).
Do your smile—and overall health—a favor, and avoid nicotine and tobacco. But if the damage is already done, professional teeth whitening can help restore your smile.