Everything You Need to Know About the Different Types of Tooth Stains

When you’re aiming for a flawless smile, you need to strategize based on your unique concerns. Because here’s the thing: not all stains are the same. Teeth discolor for a number of reasons, from exposure to medications during childhood to your morning coffee routine as an adult. Sometimes, the stains on your teeth can indicate a bigger problem, such as serious tooth decay, so you should closely monitor them and discuss them with your dentist if they persist or worsen.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Stains

There are two main types of tooth stains you need to consider before investing in the right teeth whitening system for your specific needs. Virtually all kinds of tooth stains can be classified into these two categories.

  • Intrinsic stains are the permanent stains that occur beneath the tooth’s surface. They tend to occur on the dentin, the sensitive layer just below the tooth’s enamel. Intrinsic stains may be caused by exposure to certain antibiotics (namely tetracycline) or excessive amounts of fluoride during childhood. Intrinsic stains are usually darker or yellowed in a uniform manner. Tooth decay, aging, certain medications and tooth trauma can also cause intrinsic tooth stains.
  • Extrinsic stains occur when the outer tooth layer, known as the enamel, becomes stained by some external factor. Regularly drinking coffee, wine, soda and tea, as well as smoking, are some of the most common triggers of extrinsic dental stains. Even eating certain seemingly harmless foods, including berries and spices (such as curry), can stain your teeth. Usually, extrinsic stains can be treated with the proper whitening products, such as GO SMILE Stain Erasers and whitening toothpaste.

The following are some of the most common kinds of tooth stains. Unfortunately, intrinsic and extrinsic stains can look similar, so it may not be immediately obvious what is causing the change in color.

  • Even yellowing or darkening can signify a number of causes. If you smoke, chew tobacco or drink dark beverages, such as coffee or tea, then lifestyle is the most likely culprit. However, some people see uniform darkening after being exposed to the antibiotic tetracycline during childhood. These stains typically start out yellow and then turn gray or brown over a period of months and then years. This kind of staining isn’t necessarily indicative of exposure to a staining agent, however. Teeth tend to change colors evenly with age as the enamel of the teeth wears down.
 detailed shot man yellowing teeth
  • Yellowing at the gums may occur due to a combination of poor oral hygiene and exposure to staining elements, such as coffee. The plaque that collects along the gums can harden, creating a yellowish buildup known as tartar. This surface is more prone to becoming stained, which can lead to worse discoloration. Luckily, the use of a whitening pen can help.
  • A single dark or yellowing tooth usually indicates that the stain is intrinsic, caused by some kind of inner decay or an issue beneath the surface of the tooth. Having one tooth that’s dark or slightly off-color may also be an indicator of trauma or injury. When you experience an injury to the tooth, the body sends excess blood and iron to the site to promote healing, which can leave behind stains or discoloration. Unfortunately, these kinds of stains can be difficult to address from the surface.  
  • Dark spots or brown spots can be some of the most frustrating teeth stains, causing you to be self-conscious and ruining an otherwise flawless smile. They can be caused by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. When coming from the outside, they may be caused by tobacco, wine, coffee and tea latching onto decaying parts of teeth, which is why they appear in spots rather than evenly. Intrinsic factors such as dental cavities and decay itself can also cause the tooth to appear stained in spots. Keep an eye on these spots, as cavities will grow and worsen with time.

closeup of teeth with fluorosis

  • White spots may also be caused by decay or may indicate the beginning phases of cavities. However, there are also some intrinsic triggers that may be worth considering. Dental fluorosis is a condition that occurs when children get too much fluoride as a child, and it's known for leaving faint white lines or streaks on the surface of the tooth. Another trigger is enamel hypoplasia, a defect that causes your tooth enamel to be thin, causing teeth to be even more susceptible to decay than they otherwise might. 

Not All Stains Should Be Treated Equal

Tooth whitening shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. You need to consider your specific stains and concerns before investing in an expensive or involved whitening system. But when you spend the time to get it right, your results — not just pearly whites, but also a boost in self-confidence and happiness — will prove that it’s well worth the effort!