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What Stains Teeth?

29 August 2017

Stained teeth can be a really embarrassing and uncomfortable problem, but by knowing what causes stained teeth and what can be done to minimise and even reverse the damage, it's not a problem you need to endure.

We'll take a look at some of the most common things that cause stains on teeth, things you can do to protect yourself from those problems, and some available remedies for removing stains.

Types of Stains

There are two main categories of stains that are divided into extrinsic stains (things that stain the surface of the tooth) and intrinsic stains (discolouration that occurs due to internal changes in the tooth).

Both of these two main categories are bad to have, but the extrinsic causes are easier to fix than intrinsic ones. Chemical compounds called tannins and chromogens normally cause extrinsic stains.


The really obvious culprit in causing stained teeth is tobacco, either by smoking or chewing the leaves.

The main chemical responsible for creating stains is nicotine, a powerful insecticidal compound found in plant leaves, and especially in tobacco.

Although nicotine is colourless, it turns yellow when oxidized. Nicotine particles that penetrate the surface enamel will cling there and turn yellow.


The next major stain-causing agent is tea. Loaded with tannins (the same stuff used to tan leather), it can stain your teeth brown.

The problem will be worse with high quality tea, because the low quality stuff contains more fillers and therefore less tannins. 


Coffee is often unfairly considered to be worse than tea because of its darker colour and association with other negative health effects, but in fact it's nowhere near as likely to cause dental stains as tea is.  

Red Wine

Red wine is another well-known staining agent, and that's because it contains tannins, chromagens, and acids.

That doesn't mean you get a completely free pass with white wine, because that contains substances that can make it easier for other agents to stain your teeth, but red wine is certainly much more likely to cause direct staining. 


Many types of berries have high levels of a chromagen called anthocyanin, and this can definitely cause staining.

Both natural and artificial food colouring agents can cause significant staining, especially if you consume the same particular colouring agents over a long time.  

Intrinsic Tooth Staining

Intrinsic stains are more complicated. These stains are caused by damage within the tooth. The most common cause in this case is age, because surface enamel becomes thinner, making the tooth surface less opaque.

Certain types of nutritional disorders, particularly over-exposure to fluoride, can cause discolouration and other dental problems. Some antibiotics, such as tetracycline, can also cause intrinsic staining, though this normally doesn't affect adults who take these antibiotics.

Finally there is another very common cause of intrinsic staining, which is when the tooth sustains significant trauma, usually as a result of a direct hit. If a nerve (or more rarely a blood vessel) in a tooth is damaged, it can cause discolouration to occur. Of the two stain categories, extrinsic stains are much easier to solve than intrinsic stains. 

Best Way to Remove a Stain

There are many different options for removing stains from teeth, but as you'd probably expect, the best way is to seek professional stain removal from a dental clinic.

The actual treatment you'll need depends on the type of stain and the cause. Intrinsic stains can't be removed by cleaning, and quite possibly even ordinary tooth whitening methods may not work very effectively.

In these cases, it is often recommended to apply veneers, replace the discoloured tooth with an artificial one, or use advanced tooth whitening methods..

Your dentist is the best person to consult for advice about remedying intrinsic stains. 

Extrinsic stains, on the other hand, may be removed by cleaning alone if the stain is recent and not severe. When nicotine or tannins cause the discolouration, the staining is likely to be more deeply ingrained, and thus require several cleanings (and you'll need to give up smoking, chewing tobacco, or drinking tea while the treatment is on-going, or it won't be truly effective).

In every case professional tooth-whitening remedies are likely to help. For those very deeply ingrained stains, you should not expect instant miracles, and you'll need to commit to a lengthy course of tooth whitening treatments.

For lighter staining problems, just one or two whitening sessions may be enough. Your dentist is again the best person to consult for direct advice.

Professional whitening is going to be more effective, quicker, and more safe than home remedies. Also be aware that so-called whitening toothpastes do not generally perform any actual whitening. They can help a little, but they won't achieve professional whitening results or anything even remotely close. 

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