Tooth stains can wreak havoc on an otherwise perfect smile. In many cases, you can treat these unwanted discolorations at home, but the process will depend on the location and nature of the stain. Before you even attempt a whitening treatment, it’s important to understand what you’re dealing with and how best to address it.
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Tooth Discoloration
Tooth stains, regardless of their cause, fall into one of two categories: extrinsic or intrinsic.
Extrinsic stains are surface-level stains that typically cover the entire tooth. They may be caused by consuming color-rich food and beverages like black tea, coffee, soy sauce, berries, curry, or tomato-based sauces. These superficial stains may get caught in the tiny crevices in teeth, leading to surface discoloration. Smokers are also highly prone to extrinsic stains. While extrinsic stains can be stubborn, they’re typically easier to remove than intrinsic stains.
Intrinsic stains penetrate more deeply into the tooth and are therefore much more difficult to eliminate with brushing and home treatments. They tend to be small and dark, often covering just a portion of the tooth. These types of stains may be caused by certain medications, or they may emerge as a result of fluoride exposure. In addition, if the outer layer of enamel has eroded, the tooth becomes more vulnerable to contamination and discoloration.
Common Types of Tooth Stains by Color
In many cases, you can identify the cause or nature of your tooth stain by observing its color.
Brown: Brown tooth stains are among the most common discolorations and may result from tobacco use or from certain foods and beverages like black tea and coffee. These types of stains are especially common among tobacco users, as nicotine and tar become cemented onto the teeth after repeated use. Fortunately, these are among the easiest stains to remove with proper care. If the stain is a small brown spot isolated to a section of the tooth, it’s most likely a cavity that will require professional dental care.
Yellow: Yellow tooth stains are also extremely common and are generally made up of calculus. When plaque remains on the teeth due to insufficient brushing and flossing, it ultimately hardens and becomes calculus. Calculus cannot be removed with brushing or teeth-whitening treatments. It must be treated by a dental professional.
Blue: Blue stains are commonly caused by genetic developmental disorders like dentinogenesis imperfecta or dentin dysplasia. Dentin dysplasia (DD) is a rare condition affecting dentine production, often characterized by malformed roots.
Gray: Gray stains are often the result of pulp necrosis, a condition in which the pulp inside your teeth withers and dies. Pulp necrosis is typically the result of long-term neglect. Cavities lead to tooth decay, and tooth decay (over time) compromises and damages the sensitive pulp.
White: Bright white splotches on the teeth are commonly signs of fluorosis, the result of fluoride overexposure in the first eight years of life. These types of stains tend to be milder and subtler.
Strips of dark discoloration: This is a telltale sign of tetracycline staining. A tetracycline is a type of antibiotic used to treat certain bacterial infections. This type of staining may occur in a young child who takes tetracycline or whose mother took tetracycline during pregnancy. Teeth whitening may reduce the staining to an extent, but the discoloration likely won’t disappear entirely.
How to Treat Tooth Stains
Regardless of the cause, the first step is to determine if the staining is extrinsic or intrinsic. If it’s an extrinsic stain (like the kind of caused by foods and beverages or smoking), you may be able to eliminate the discoloration with an at-home or in-office teeth whitening.
If you have an intrinsic stain, like the kind caused by medication use, genetic disorders, or long-term tooth decay, a teeth whitening procedure typically won’t help. These kinds of stains must be concealed, such as with crowns or veneers.
A veneer is a type of casing or shell that’s placed over the natural tooth, concealing the stain and giving you the kind of flawless smile you’ve been looking for. The color is carefully matched to the surrounding teeth, so nobody will ever know you’re wearing a veneer unless you tell them. We recommend using porcelain veneers because they are stain resistant.
Of course, the most important thing is to speak with your dentist. They can conduct an up-close assessment to determine the nature of the stain and the best method removal. The solution may be as simple as a few teeth-whitening strips, but even if the problem is more serious, you always have options available.