Most of us love our morning cup of java (okay, maybe two cups… plus an afternoon cup for good measure). But you probably don’t love the tooth stains that come with it. Luckily, there are plenty of tricks to help preserve your smile — including at-home preventive care and in-office treatments. To find out how to keep teeth pearly white, we sought guidance from two dentists — Dr. Richard Lipari and Dr. Matthew Asaro — who explained which foods and drinks are most likely to discolor your smile and what you can do to prevent teeth stains.
What causes teeth staining?
The most common cause of teeth stains are diet and lifestyle habits. The particles from strongly pigmented foods and liquids stick to the tooth enamel (the outermost layer of the tooth), build up, and create discoloration. Dr. Matt Asaro, owner of Asaro Dental Aesthetics, notes that in addition to lifestyle habits (like ingesting foods with pigmented residues), a person’s dental health — such as poor oral hygiene, disease, or medications — can also contribute to teeth stains.
Dr. Richard Lipari adds that some of this staining is a consequence of age. “Enamel wears over the course of our lifetime, becoming thinner — while the dentin (inner layer of the tooth) naturally yellows over time,” he explains. “This thinning of the enamel allows the yellow dentin to show through to a greater degree, giving our teeth a more yellow appearance as we get older.”
What foods, drinks, or habits commonly stain teeth?
Both dentists agreed that coffee is a very common stain culprit — with red wine, soda, tea, fruit juices, and energy drinks not far behind. They agreed, too, that smoking tobacco is, by far, the primary offender. As for foods, they recommend you watch out for berries, sweets or candy, and pigmented sauces such as soy sauce. “Eating sugary foods results in the breakdown of the enamel and can eventually lead to cavities and the yellowing of the teeth,” Dr. Lipari notes.
Does drinking through a straw or brushing after eating/drinking help protect your teeth?
It turns out that yes, drinking through a straw can help. Straws reduce the amount of contact a liquid has with the outside surfaces of your front teeth, which reduces the amount of staining that can occur. Try the Hiware 12-Pack Reusable Stainless Steel Metal Straws (Buy from Amazon, $6.98 for Prime members). “What I also recommend for my patients is to take a sip of water in between sips of the coffee, wine, etc. they may be drinking,” Dr. Lipari says. “This helps rinse the teeth to prevent the stains from sticking.”
As for whether you should brush your teeth directly after eating and drinking to prevent discoloration, the dentists’ answers differed slightly. While Dr. Lipari suggested that waiting to brush your teeth until an hour or two after eating would not be as effective as brushing immediately, Dr. Asaro advised waiting at least 30 minutes — or longer — after consuming food or coffee to get scrubbing. This is because you can potentially “brush the stain residues deeper into the tooth structure,” he warns. Dr. Asaro also recommends that you rinse your mouth with water after consuming any teeth-staining foods or beverages.
Are there any effective at-home whitening methods?
There are many at-home teeth whitening methods out there — but are they safe and effective? Dr. Lipari and Dr. Asaro both agree that Crest 3D Whitestrips (Buy from Amazon, $29.99 for Prime members today, $45.99 regular price), are effective (although not to the same extent as an in-office whitening procedure). They are also “not particularly user-friendly and not a great solution for patients with sensitive teeth,” Dr. Lipari adds. (As a person with sensitive teeth who gave up on Crest strips because they were too uncomfortable, I concur!) He advises that if you are going to try Crest whitening strips — or Opalescence Go Prefilled Teeth Whitening Trays (Buy from Amazon, $79.50), which is his preference for over-the-counter whitening — it’s very important to be consistent with the treatment for seven to 10 days and to avoid colorful foods and liquids during that time.
Dr. Asaro notes that while DIY home whitening methods can be effective for some people, factors that will influence that effectiveness include age, type of stains (intrinsic or extrinsic), genetics, and lifestyle habits. “It’s always recommended to only whiten your teeth after your mouth has been debrided of plaque and calculus (tartar),” he says. “A phrase I like to use with my patients is, ‘you would never want to put a fresh coat of paint on a dirty wall.’”
Both dentists agree that stains can be minimized best by proper brushing and flossing, rinsing your mouth with water, and getting regular cleanings from a professional dentist hygienist (a minimum of two times per year).
Two popular at-home teeth whitening substances include hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. Are these safe and/or effective?
“I personally do not recommend rinsing with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda or using baking soda as a toothpaste alternative,” says Dr. Lipari. “Baking soda, like charcoal, is abrasive and can result in damaging the enamel over time. Additionally, hydrogen peroxide, when used at home typically as a rinse, can cause chemical burns on the gum tissue.” Dr. Lipari says that when he performs an in-office whitening procedure, he places a protective barrier over the gum tissue to avoid any chemical irritation.
Dr. Asaro admits that hydrogen peroxide and baking soda can definitely be effective, but in agreement with Dr. Lipari, recommends that you dilute the peroxide with water “because very concentrated hydrogen peroxide and baking soda can be abrasive to the enamel and lead to structural damage.” It’s best to use these ingredients in moderation and only two to three times per week, if at all, he concludes.
What kind of in-office procedures do you recommend for teeth whitening?
Dr. Lipari claims the fastest and most predictable way to whiten your teeth is an in-office whitening treatment; the procedure takes about one hour and results can be seen immediately. “My patients typically whiten their teeth once every one to two years, depending on their diet and lifestyle habits,” Dr. Lipari says. Worried about tooth pain during or after the treatment? Dr. Lipari uses a desensitizing gel before starting the whitening process, which greatly reduces sensitivity. Unfortunately, insurance does not usually cover an in-office whitening.
Dr. Asaro proposes the best way to whiten your teeth is via a combination of custom at-home bleaching trays (your dentist can fit you for these) and two sessions of in-office high-strength professional bleaching. “I recommend my patients use their at-home bleaching trays every few months to touch up the color, and do no more than one to two in-office sessions per year,” he concludes.
With any luck, these tips will help you on your way to getting — and keeping — a bright and shiny smile. Yellow teeth, begone!
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