A debate exists about which color teeth are meant to be naturally, white or yellow. In a society that prides itself on pearly whites, we may think we’ve got it figured out, but is the answer so simple? Are all teeth naturally the same? The answer to the debate may help you love your smile just a little bit more.
What Color Are Teeth Naturally?
While it may be tempting to run with industry stereotypes and say that white teeth are healthier, that kind of carte blanche statement simply isn’t possible when talking about human biology. The natural color of teeth is highly dependent on genetics and how they affect the structure of a tooth.
All teeth have three layers: the pulp, the dentin, and the enamel. The pulp is found at the center of all teeth, right at their heart. It contains all a tooth’s nerves, blood vessels, and nutrients that keep the rest of the tooth alive. Surrounding the pulp is the dentin, a naturally yellow layer that functions chiefly to give the tooth structure. The exterior layer is called the enamel, naturally shiny, white, translucent, and hard to protect the rest of the tooth from bacteria and the basic wear and tear of daily use.
While this basic structure applies to all teeth, the minute details boil down to the genetic code. The precise hue of either the dentin or the enamel is entirely individual, as is the thickness or porousness of the enamel layer. If that outermost layer is relatively thick or if the dentin is relatively light, the individual in question will have whiter teeth naturally.
This is why the question of teeth’s natural color doesn’t have one simple answer, and the health of teeth certainly cannot—at a glance—be determined by a tooth’s color. Teeth naturally on the yellow side can still be healthy.
Do Teeth Naturally Go Yellow?
With that in mind, teeth do become more yellow over the course of time. Age is the leading factor in tooth color. Over a lifetime of breaking down food, chattering in the cold, and biting our tongues, teeth experience wear and tear, and that causes enamel to thin or break down, revealing more yellow dentin.
While we cannot stop aging, we can put a limit on the amount of external contributors that also make teeth naturally take on a creamier tint. These are varied, but the following are the most common factors that contribute to enamel thinning or excessive tooth discoloration:
- Smoking or chewing tobacco—There are many adverse effects of smoking or chewing tobacco, including heightened risk of gum disease or oral cancer. Additionally, they can stain your teeth.
- Drinking wine, coffee, tea, and dark sodas—These dark drinks are among the leading causes of teeth staining in the US.
- Eating citrus, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, and candy—While these foods may be appealing to the taste buds, they have their own beef with the teeth. Acidic foods can eat away at enamel, and sugary foods are a homing beacon for bacteria.
- Using DIY whiteners—“Natural” teeth whiteners like activated charcoal, baking soda, and lemon juice can actually wear down your enamel more quickly.
- Being harsh on your teeth—Brushing too vigorously or using a toothbrush with bristles that are too firm can scrape away your tooth enamel.
- Bruxism—Grinding your teeth can wear down the enamel unnaturally quickly.
Contrary to popular belief, braces themselves do not make teeth yellow. They do, however, make brushing every surface of teeth difficult. When bacteria gets missed, it can build up, and that accumulation leads to staining. If you have braces, make thorough and regular brushing a high priority to keep bacteria buildup at bay.
Steps to a Whiter Smile
There are hundreds of suggestions floating around the internet about how to make your teeth naturally whiter. While some of these have merit, others are more likely to damage your teeth irreparably. Instead of taking that risk with DIY tooth whitening “solutions,” consult with your dentist, who has your teeth’s interest at heart.
Your dentist may recommend professional teeth whitening services or even veneers to achieve that luminous smile. In the meantime, there are steps you can take to protect your enamel and prolong the natural yellowing process. These usually come down to lifestyle choices:
- Quit smoking and the use of tobacco
- Avoid foods and drinks that have corrosive ingredients like acids
- Minimize your consumption of foods and drinks that cause staining
- Drink plenty of water, especially with foods and drinks that cause discoloration or damage
- Ask your dentist about wearing a nightguard if you struggle with bruxism
- Be gentle with your teeth, using a soft-bristled toothbrush at least twice a day and visiting your dentist regularly