The colour of our teeth: a telltale sign of our bad habits and health disorders
2019-07-09

We all wish to have white teeth as they change the way we look and project an impeccable image, resulting in greater self-esteem. Yet not everyone has naturally white teeth; and besides, there are plenty of factors that can make teeth turn yellow, grey or brown. What are the things that will affect the colour of your teeth the most? And do shiny white teeth always indicate good health?

 The colour of a person’s teeth has to do with their genes, diet, smoking, diseases, the prolonged use of medication, and even the thickness of their enamel. Over a person’s lifetime, there are many things that could affect the colour of their teeth, giving them an unsightly yellow, grey or brown tint. According to dentists, changes in the colour of the teeth are due to both external and internal factors. The teeth can become yellow because of a poor hygiene and bad habits such as smoking, as well as due to certain medications and chronic diseases. ‘It is not the enamel, but rather the dentin that determines the colour of the tooth. The enamel – the hardest material in our body – actually has no colour and acts like a mask covering the dentin. It consists of many of the same materials as our bones; whereas, the dentin is softer than bone. If the dentin is naturally darker in colour, the teeth will be darker too. This is just as nature intended it to be – the teeth are a product of one’s genetics, and there is nothing miraculous about that.

When asked whether the condition of a child’s teeth could be affected by the mother’s diet and habits while pregnant, the dentist said that this would not affect the colour of the teeth in any way; however, a poor diet during pregnancy may cause the child’s teeth to be weaker and less resilient to tooth decay.

 If you compare your teeth to those of the Hollywood celebrities smiling at you from the silver screen, you may be disappointed to find that yours are much more yellow. However, this is no reason to despair, because the natural colour of the teeth of a healthy person may range from ivory to a darker shade like boiled milk. You should only be worried if your teeth become unusually yellow, brown, grey or even black. ‘We use the Vita Classical colour key to determine the colour of the teeth. Based on this colour key, the tooth colours are categorised into four groups, A, B, C and D. Every letter also has a numeric scale: for instance, the shades of teeth can range from A 1 to A 4 or from B 1 to B 4. While all the colours within Group A and some of the Group B colours are considered to be normal, the colours falling into Groups C and D are usually the product of some pathology or another,’ said the dentist.

 The average shade of the teeth among Europeans is said to normally be A 2, which is quite white. If we take a look at some African people, we might feel a pang of jealousy as their teeth appear whiter than ours; however, this is not the case. Specialists argue that many representatives of this ethnic group actually have teeth that are one shade darker – usually A 3.

Tar and food dyes affect the colour of teeth as well

 Dentists say that the greatest factors influencing the colour of the teeth in a negative way are bad habits. Smoking is still one of the biggest enemies of healthy and white teeth. Smokers’ teeth are often more yellow than the teeth of other people; in fact, some smokers’ teeth can even be brown. The cigarette smoke that a smoker inhales contains a substantial amount of tar, and only about 30 percent of this is released with the exhale. The rest of the tar is deposited in the throat and the lungs, as well as on the surface of the teeth and gums, where it promotes the formation of plaque and leads to discolouration, with the teeth gradually acquiring a yellow or even brown tint. Doctors have even noticed that, in the case of pipe-smokers, the teeth sometimes tend to erode and the exposed dentin becomes coloured by the tobacco pigments.

 However, smoking is not just bad for the aesthetics of the teeth. According to dentists, the systemic effects of nicotine cause a constriction in the small vessels of the oral cavity and a disruption of the circulation in the gums, with less blood making its way into the gums and the teeth becoming more vulnerable to disease. That is why smoking often causes stomatitis, gum bleeding, gum recession and acute necrotic gingivitis. In addition, smoking promotes the development of oral cavity candidosis and increases the risk of oral cancer.

 Those who place smoking above the wellbeing of their teeth should really focus on their dental care: they must use a whitening or special toothpaste that will minimise the accumulation of tobacco pigment and should clean their teeth after each cigarette to reduce the accumulation of dark pigment stains. Of course, visiting the dentist or oral hygienist more often to have their teeth checked and to clean off the plaque will provide additional benefits.

 External tooth stains or yellow discolouration can also be caused by certain foods that create stains. When we consume drinks or food that contain a lot of pigment, such as coffee, tea, red wine, soy sauce, cranberries or blueberries, the pigments soak into the plaque and may cause the teeth to change their colour.

Tooth discolouration can be caused by disease and certain medications

 Some dentists argue that even the whitest of teeth are not necessarily an indicator of good health. If you were born with very white teeth, you may be prone to all kinds of viral respiratory diseases. On top of this, you should watch your blood haemoglobin level, as it may be too low. On the other hand, unusually yellow or grey teeth sometimes also point to a poor health condition. Such teeth can be a sign of a liver or gall bladder disorder, causing plaque to accumulate both on the tongue and on the tooth enamel. Plaque makes the protective layer thinner, and the accumulation of bacteria makes the teeth look yellow.

 Tooth discolouration can also occur due to certain types of antibiotics taken as a child, during the period of the tooth formation. ‘Previously, tetracyclines were widely used to treat children and these could affect the colour of the teeth in the formative period of a child’s permanent teeth. Children taking these antibiotics ran the risk of having teeth that would be more grey or yellow. However, other antibiotics did not have any such effect,’ said the dentist.

 The colour of the teeth can also be affected by high content of fluoride in the drinking water, as well as certain beverages and toothpaste. This could lead to fluorosis, which presents as white stains on the teeth, giving the teeth a mottled look. ‘A high fluorine content in the body could be a contributing factor here. For instance, if children use a toothpaste for adults that contains a high amount of fluoride, their teeth can develop white spots. Dentists call such teeth “fluoridated”. The child does not know how to rinse their mouth and swallows the paste, thus ingesting a too-large amount of fluoride, which inhibits the development of the tooth. Sometimes, mothers give too many fluoride drops to their toddlers. Some also say that enamel stains may develop in those who drink water with a high fluoride content as children. Excess fluorine in the body can cause irreversible changes in the condition of the teeth. In such cases, the colour of the teeth can be equalised to an extent; otherwise, the stains will have to be covered by aesthetic fillings. All of this makes it important to supervise your child’s brushing to see that they spit out the paste, as well as to check the quality of the water that you drink,’ said the doctor.

 Tooth decay can also cause tooth discolouration, with the colour of the teeth sometimes turning dark brown. Furthermore, low-quality or old fillings can also appear to be tooth stains.

Teeth will also become darker with age

 As we age, even the healthiest of teeth will slowly lose their white appearance, becoming yellow or grey. The underlying cause in this case is that the yellow interior tissue of the tooth, or the dentin, is becoming increasingly visible through the thinning enamel. ‘The older a person gets, the darker the dentin becomes. With age, the dentin tends to mineralise, calcify and become opaque. The degree of this discolouration may vary from person to person, because we all have a different physiology. If your teeth naturally are of a slightly darker shade, they will become even darker as you get older – this is a normal physiological occurrence. Of course, they can be whitened a bit; or alternatively, some corrections can be made with aesthetic fillings.

Here are some tips for preserving the natural whiteness of your teeth:

  •  Quit smoking, because smoking will obviously affect the colour of your teeth in a negative way.
  • If you drink two to three cups of coffee a day, the tooth enamel will be constantly exposed with a staining agent. However, the key factor here is not how much coffee you drink, but rather how you do it: try to make sure that coffee and other drinks that may cause discolouration have as little contact with the teeth as possible. Instead of sipping the coffee, we recommend drinking it as quickly as possible, or drinking it through a straw. In this way, your mouth will have less exposure to the staining substance. Rinse your teeth every time after you drink a cup of coffee or black tea, or when you eat some berries that may cause stains.
  • Brush your teeth thoroughly, using floss and other dental hygiene products, and do not let plaque accumulate between or on the surface of the teeth.
  • When brushing, try not to scrub the teeth too hard. Pressing with the brush and scrubbing the teeth too hard (especially if the toothpaste contains abrasive particles) could erode the thin layer of enamel, causing the dentin to show through.
  • Visit your dentist often and book a professional dental hygiene procedure at least once a year.