What Causes Yellow Teeth? Intrinsic and Extrinsic Factors That Discolor Teeth

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A number of things affect the color of our “pearly whites,” which, in truth, are not at all white.

Teeth range in color from bright off-white to pale yellow to shades of gray and even pink. In fact, when you visit a dentist and talk to them about tooth whitening services, they’ll likely pull out a tooth color scale.

The scale can be a printed poster or chart, or it can be a 3D model depicting dozens of shades of tooth colors. Your dental team will use this to set a baseline for where you are now, and then they’ll help you set realistic expectations for post-whitening colors.

Of course, some of the things that affect your teeth’s colors are easy to control — like foods and drinks that stain teeth — while others are out of your control, like genetics. Let’s dig in and learn about those extrinsic and intrinsic factors that cause teeth to yellow.

Extrinsic Tooth-Staining Factors

Causes of tooth stains can be divided into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic factors include those that are external to the tooth, such as things we drink and eat.

Dental hygiene

People who do not brush and floss regularly and who do not see their dentists regularly are more prone to discoloration in their teeth.


No surprise here: Smoking and chewing tobacco will stain your teeth. The more you smoke or chew and the longer you do it, the worse your stains will be. The negative effects of tobacco and nicotine are well-documented: Smoking is a contributing factor to gum disease. Experts recommend that smokers and tobacco chewers brush their teeth at least twice daily. Even better — just quit.

Tooth-staining foods

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Certain ingredients can stain your teeth, although brushing after eating will help reduce the effects. Food ingredients that are guilty of yellowing teeth include:

  • Apples
  • Berries and vibrantly colored fruits
  • Candy and sweets
  • Curry
  • Potatoes
  • Tomato sauce

One of the general “rules” for determining whether a food will stain your teeth is if it will stain your tablecloth, it will likely stain your teeth. What about apples and potatoes — two foods that we don’t usually think of as stainers?

Apples and potatoes are sometimes referred to as “hidden culprits” that discolor your teeth, because they do so in a different way from other foods on the list. The chemicals that cause apples and potatoes to discolor when they’ve ripened can also affect the enamel on your teeth.

Beverages that stain your teeth

Coffee, tea, colas, some fruit juices and red wines are all guilty of staining teeth. Some sports drinks are also known to stain teeth. There are also hidden culprits in beverages, as well. Carbonated beverages, even clear ones, can wear away your teeth’s enamel, as do herbal and white teas.

The best defense to protect your teeth is to avoid these beverages, but there are other things you can do to reduce stains from beverages.

Drink teeth-staining beverages through a straw, which keeps beverages away from your teeth. While this might not be realistic for wine and hot coffee drinkers, it is for cola lovers.

If food and beverage stains are a concern, brush after eating or rinse with a revitalizing mouthwash that can help protect against enamel erosion and stains.

Intrinsic Tooth-Staining Factors

Intrinsic factors that affect the color of teeth are those that occur within the teeth, such as injuries, illnesses and disease, age and genetics. 

  • Illnesses and disease: Some medical conditions and their treatments can contribute to tooth discoloration. For example, some people who have radiation or chemotherapy in their head and neck area might notice their teeth change color. In the mid-20th century, scientists discovered a strong link between the antibiotic tetracycline and gray discoloration in teeth, especially among babies whose mothers took it during pregnancy.
  • Aging and genetics: As we get older, our teeth yellow because the outer enamel wears away, and some people just have a propensity to whiter or darker teeth, thanks to their ancestors. There are some health conditions that can cause tooth discoloration — dentinogenesis imperfecta and hereditary opalescent dentin to name two — but these are extremely rare.
  • Drug addiction and abuse: Long-term drug use and abuse can cause a slew of health problems that lead to teeth to become discolored and even worse, rotten and decayed. Drugs that cause dry mouth can increase the risk for enamel loss, and prolonged drug abuse can restrict the flow of blood to gums.
  • Eating disorders: There is a strong link between diet and oral health, and people who struggle with eating disorders are prone to dental issues. Frequent vomiting exposes teeth to stomach acids that wear away enamel and discolor teeth.

Before you begin any tooth whitening procedure, it’s a good idea to understand what causes teeth to yellow or darken, especially if there is an underlying health issue.

In fact, most dentists that offer tooth whitening services will educate you on what causes teeth to yellow or discolor, so you can get the most from your whitening procedures and reduce future discoloration. Many at-home tooth whitening kits will include this information as well.

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Ava Moore
BA, MA Psychology (and Conflict Resolution), University of Cambridge (2007). With a decade of trial and error in psychology and 33 years of navigating my own complex (that's one word for it!) relationships with family, friends, co-workers and men, I hope I have some useful knowledge and skills to share with my readers about making sense of relationships and trying to become a better person every day.

I'm the Chief Editor here at Independent Femme and would love to hear from you.

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