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If your smile isn’t as bright as you’d like, think about what you put in your mouth. You can stain your teeth if you smoke or if you eat or drink certain things, and it’s more likely to happen as you age.
But once you know what to eat — and what to avoid — you can keep your pearly whites bright and shiny.
What Causes Stains?
“Tooth enamel [changes] as you get older,” says Sally Cram, DDS. “Like a piece of pottery that gets fine lines [over time], the stain gets into the little cracks and crevices.”
You need to watch out for these three things:
Chromogens — compounds with strong pigments that cling to enamel
Tannins — plant-based compounds that make it easier for stains to stick to teeth
Acids — these make tooth enamel softer and rougher, so it’s easier for stains to set in
Coffee, Tea, or Neither?
You probably think the main cause of darkened teeth in the U.S. is a drink you brew for yourself in the morning. After all, more than half of Americans drink coffee every day. You can tell from its color that it’s high in chromogens, and it’s very acidic. Together, these factors help turn white teeth yellow over time.
But it’s not the worst culprit. That would be tea, which nearly half your fellow Americans drink every day. Not only is it full of acid, it also has tannins.
“Tea causes teeth to stain much worse than coffee,” says Mark S. Wolff, DDS, PhD, professor at the New York University College of Dentistry. “Iced tea or brewed tea — it doesn’t matter.”
If you have coffee or tea only after Sunday dinner, you’re less likely to have stained teeth than if you drink three cups every morning.
“To really have that big of an effect, it’s really the frequency of intake that’s going to make the stain,” Cram says.
What’s In Your Glass?
Red wine can be good for your health, but it’s not ideal for a bright smile. Wolff says three factors work against it: It’s very acidic, it has lots of tannins, and — as its deep purple color suggests — it’s high in chromogens, which land on your teeth and stick to them quickly Wolff says.
White wine has both acid and, despite its color, some tannins. It doesn’t have its own color to stain teeth, but the tannins and acids make your teeth fair game for other types of stains. They’re more likely to be stained by a tomato, a blueberry, or a strawberry, Wolff says.