Stained Teeth

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Stained Teeth

7 Bright Ideas

Think of a fine porcelain cup. Fill it daily with coffee and colas, subject it to heat and cold, smoke, and alcohol. Fill it with brightly colored food. Then wash the cup in a harsh detergent. Eventually, tiny craze marks will dot the ceramic surface, and before you know it, the once-white cup looks dirty and dingy.

Your teeth are like that pretty porcelain cup. They start out shiny and white. But cola, tea, smoke, acidic juices, and highly pigmented foods slosh past them three (or more) times daily. And your teeth tell the tale in the form of stains.

Not that teeth were ever meant to be totally white. The natural color of teeth is actually light yellow to light yellow-red, says Roger P. Levin, D.D.S., president of the Baltimore Academy of General Dentistry. But as you age, your teeth tend to darken even more.

Surface enamel cracks and erodes, exposing dentin, the less dense inside of the tooth, which absorbs food color. Stains also latch onto the plaque and tartar buildup on teeth, finding anchorage among the nooks and crannies.

"There are many different kinds of stains," says Ronald I. Maitland, D.M.D., who specializes in cosmetic dentistry in his New York City practice. Stains can be caused by antibiotics, by quirks in individual metabolism, and sometimes by high fever. All these have to be fixed by a professional.

But common stains—the coffee and cigarette variety—can be washed away between professional cleanings. Here's how.

Clean after every meal. If you clean your teeth regularly and conscientiously, you have less chance of keeping stains on your teeth, says Dr. Levin.

Polish with baking soda. Mix baking soda with enough hydrogen peroxide to make a toothpaste-like consistency, says Dr. Levin, then brush stains away. Be sure not to use too much peroxide, as it can cause burning.

Check your plaque quotient. Rinse with a disclosing solution to show where plaque remains on your teeth after brushing. Those spots are where your teeth will stain if you don't improve your brushing technique, says John D. B. Featherstone, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Oral Biology at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, New York.

Rinse, rinse, rinse. After every meal, rinse the food from your teeth, says Dr. Maitland. If you can't get to a restroom, pick up your water glass, take a swig, then rinse and swallow at the table.

Electrify your smile. An electric toothbrush, says Dr. Maitland, will push more of the stain-collecting plaque off your teeth. Studies show an electric toothbrush can remove 98.2 percent of plaque.

Try a plaque dissolver. Mouthwashes that have an antibacterial action will reduce stain-catching plaque, says Dr. Featherstone.

Don't scrub away your smile. If you're tempted to turn to one of those super-whitening tooth polishes, don't, says Dr. Maitland. "It's a quick fix, but it's like using an abrasive on a countertop. It takes off the stain, but it wears off the enamel, too. And as your enamel gets thinner and thinner, more of the dentin shows through. And dentin is darker, so it looks like your tooth is stained."

Watch out for excessive scrubbing, too. Harder doesn't mean better, Dr. Maitland warns. A heavy-duty brush with a lot of muscle behind it can be as wearing on tooth enamel as an abrasive toothpaste.


John D. B. Featherstone, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Oral Biology at Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, New York, and deputy director of the Rochester Cariology Center.

Roger P. Levin, D.D.S., is president of the Baltimore Academy of General Dentistry and a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Ronald I. Maitland, D.M.D., is a New York City dentist who specializes in cosmetic dentistry. He is chairman of the Greater New York Dental Meeting and an expert on dental stains.

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