When it comes to white teeth, many factors come into play. Genetics can determine the amount and quality of enamel a person has. Or more extrinsic factors may be the culprit—things like diet, prescription medication and how often you visit your dentist for a cleaning. “A diet of coffee, tea, red wine, berries, chocolates or any other dark-colored substances can cause teeth to darken or yellow over time,” says Devon-based cosmetic dentist Dr. Ericka Klein, adding that soda and smoothies can also have a negative impact.
Dr. Gulia Omene concurs. “I’d never ask anyone to give up coffee,” says Omene, whose office is in Paoli. “But if lifestyle factors remain the same, I liken it to buying a new white T-shirt—it doesn’t stay white forever. If you spill coffee or red wine on that shirt, you have to throw it in the wash with bleach to remove those stains.”
Dr. Tara Sexton of Bala Cynwyd’s Main Line Smiles notes that some prescription drugs can impact your teeth. A big one is tetracycline, an antibiotic commonly used for treating acne and skin infections. But there are ways to combat yellowing—like seeing your dentist twice a year for a cleaning and exam. And if you’re going to have coffee, tea, cola or red wine, sip it through a reusable straw and thoroughly rinse with water when you’re finished.
Dr. David Block recommends three ways to whiten teeth: over-the-counter strips, custom-made trays and in-office procedures. “I like tray bleaching the best,” says the Narberth-based dentist.
The process utilizes models of the teeth to create plastic retainers that hold a bleaching agent. “You get the most control and a better long-term result,” Block says.
Sexton recommends at-home professional whitening gels with custom bleaching trays. “Though in-office professional whitening treatments yield great results for some, patients can develop sensitivity or rebound effects months after treatment,” she notes.
Stains build up in the layers of our teeth, and those layers are exposed as you attempt to remove the discoloration. “This means a sensation like hot or cold can travel easier from outside to inside,” says Omene. “I liken it to taking off a fuzzy sweater on a chilly night. You start to feel the air on your skin more.”
It’s important to discuss whitening techniques with your dentist to avoid a bout of sensitivity. “Yellowing or darkening teeth can also be caused by factors other than just surface stains,” says Klein. “Having a thorough checkup prior to using any whitening system is always recommended.”
“I’d never ask anyone to give up coffee. But if lifestyle factors remain the same, I liken it to buying a new white t-shirt—It doesn’t stay white forever. If you spill coffee or red wine on that shirt, you have to throw it in the wash with bleach to remove those stains.”
—Dr. Gulia Omene
And don’t be so quick to reach for that whitening toothpaste. “Bleaching toothpastes tend to be more abrasive in nature,” says Omene. “For certain patients, it can be too much for their gum tissue and lead to some recession.”
According to Dr. Jonathan Scharf, the root cause of the discoloration will predict how effective whitening will be for each patient. When it involves more external factors like diet, patients can expect positive results. Dentin layers and other genetic factors can make the process more difficult. Scharf recommends an in-office whitening procedure called Zoom, a light-activated, peroxide-based technique he had a hand in developing. “It requires a single office visit, and the results are quite long-lasting,” says Scharf, who heads the Exton Dental Health Group and the Pennsylvania Center for Cosmetic Dentistry.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of the pearly whites you see out there may be veneers. “If the teeth look too white to be natural, most likely it’s not bleaching,” Omene says. “Veneers are porcelain slips placed over teeth, and those can be made in the brightest white shades imaginable.”
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