Brown teeth (including the brown stains and spots) can be caused by dark-coloured foods and drinks (including those with artificial colours), nicotine and tobacco, tartar (which can get worse because of smoking, hormonal changes, diabetes and other medical conditions), tooth decay, ageing (white enamel naturally wears out through the years) and genetics.
We may or may not have control over some of those causes and factors but we do have control of how to keep our teeth looking bright and white. For example, there are now over-the-counter whitening mouthwashes and toothpastes (often containing hydrogen peroxide and/or sodium hypochlorite). Also, maintaining excellent oral hygiene could go a long way to lighten the colour of the teeth and prevent the appearance of brown stains and spots in the first place.
Can brown teeth be whitened?
The short answer is yes and there’s a wide range of solutions available. We mentioned that over-the-counter products might do the trick (i.e. the do-it-yourself approach) and that you can do several things to somehow lighten the brown colour and make your smile naturally whiter.
However, the results might not satisfy you because the solutions mentioned above might not be too targeted or that they don’t deal with the root cause. For example, the brown spots and stains might be due to nicotine and tobacco particles that got stuck to the enamel’s microscopic pores. These might be difficult or impossible to remove and clean up just by using an over-the-counter mouthwash or toothpaste. It’s the same case with tartar because once it builds up, only a dental professional will be able to remove it.
Also, over-the-counter products (and other “surface-only” solutions) don’t often act on the root cause. It’s especially the case with tooth decay wherein the enamel is already weak or compromised. Because of the thinning of the enamel, the natural yellowish layers of the teeth become more noticeable. The appearance gets worse because of the plaque, tartar and bacteria. The acids produced by the bacteria (a by-product of their sugar metabolism) could then cause breaks, holes and cracks on the teeth. These could be new sites for food debris to accumulate and bacteria to thrive and reproduce. Dark spots might develop around those cracks and holes which make the teeth’s appearance worse.
To solve that problem, it’s important to go to the root cause which is tooth decay. The dentist can do a thorough cleaning to remove plaque and tartar build-up (as well as temporarily halt or slow down bacterial growth). Dental fillings or crowns might then be placed to cover the breeding sites of bacteria. Then after, a good oral hygiene practice will be recommended to prevent or significantly slow down tooth decay through the years.
What about the brown spots or stains? Most are reversible and removable as the dentist can scrape off the brown spots. However, there are permanent brown stains that can permanently ruin our smiles. Good thing is that the dentist can instead hide that brown discolouration with the use of fillings, veneers and crowns. These often last long enough and they help in creating natural-looking smiles (i.e. the colours can match the colour of the surrounding teeth). You can also ask your dentist about other options (especially if the enamel has already worn out and the dentin layer is now more pronounced) and how to prevent brown discolouration from appearing in the first place.
Dangers of do-it-yourself approaches
There are several self-help tips found online. Some of them could actually be helpful especially if they’re not too harsh or invasive. For example, some people found brushing with baking soda (plus water) to be effective in teeth whitening. Some also tried rinsing their mouth with diluted hydrogen peroxide. Some even went too far by manually scraping the brown spots.
There are risks in such DIY approaches. For example, scraping the brown spots from the teeth should only be done by a dental professional. If not done professionally, the scraping might even cause further damage to the tooth’s enamel (and thereby introduce new sites for food debris and bacteria to accumulate). It can even cause bleeding as you can make a hole in the tooth or accidentally hit the surrounding gum tissue.
It’s a similar case with using DIY baking soda mixture (including preparing a diluted hydrogen peroxide solution). Estimating the amounts and concentrations is far from accurate and scientific. Perhaps the amount of baking soda is too much that its abrasion power is now harmful to the teeth. After all, baking soda particles are effective because it’s abrasive plus its neutralising and amphoteric properties. High amounts could scrape off the teeth’s enamel and further reveal the yellowish layer. It’s a similar case with the diluted hydrogen peroxide solution. Some people might have increased the concentration or used it too often. Although it can yield fairly good noticeable results, accidental ingestion of the solution might cause stomach pain. In addition, the hydrogen peroxide you gargle might irritate your gums (i.e. your gums might swell or appear reddish). In many cases the irritation will go away but the risk of serious problems is always there.
As a result, it’s crucial to start with a dental consultation. This way, you can find solutions that will be more effective and that will show results for the long term. DIY approaches might only bring temporary results and they don’t often go to the root cause. On the other hand, during a dental visit you will be introduced to more effective solutions for achieving a better smile.