As an avid coffee drinker, I’ve had people ask me Doesn’t coffee stain your teeth?, and the answer is: it can – if handled carelessly. What causes tooth stain, and how long would it take?
Stains to your teeth can come from acids and dyes. Coffee is acidic and contains strong colors, taking a toll over the years. It will take several years of careless tooth care for these changes. Genetics also play a role.
At the bottom of this post, you can also find a list of tips on how to avoid these pitfalls.
What does it mean to stain your teeth?
As we age, we can have a number of issues that will affect our teeth, as the next section will explain.
It seems that there are two things that tend to frequently stain teeth. I previously thought that all staining was just a matter of your tooth enamel (the outermost layer) wearing away and making teeth turn yellow. It turns out that this isn’t the whole picture.
Acids wear away your enamel over time and throw open the gates to dyes from outside sources when used together. You see, your enamel may feel flat and smooth, but it actually has many microscopic pockets that can hold in acids and foods that can weaken, wear away, or discolor our teeth.
Over time, if you don’t rinse your mouth well enough with water after a meal (anything non-water can affect your teeth), then these dyes (chromogens) can work their magic on the pockets and ridges, causing your teeth to change color overall.
One of the most common acids affecting our teeth are tannins, which can be found in the most blamed culprits of tooth stain: wines (including white), teas, and coffee.
Tannins seem to have a number of health benefits (though they can hinder iron absorption) and can be found in a wide variety of common, unexpected foods (berries, beer, nuts). Here’s a list of foods in case you’re interested. Fun fact: tannins were used for tanning leather, dyeing fabric, and even make ink! Notice the trend? (Hint: it’s not what you want for your teeth.)
What causes tooth stain?
As my Dentist just informed me: if it can stain your clothes/tongue, it can stain your teeth.
The reasons seem to be somewhat varied and can be broken down into three broad categories (source):
- Extrinsic: as the term implies, these are things from the environment that pass through your mouth and affect teeth from the outside. They may contain a variety of things, such as chromogens, tannins, and other acids. These would include:
- Smoke (tobacco or other)
- Intrinsic: these would be issues that occur inside the tooth itself, and are resistant to whitening since those usually only affect the outside. Apparently, these problems will cause your teeth to appear a bit grayish and dull. Examples include:
- Damage to a tooth
- Too much fluoride
- General tooth decay
- Select medications
- Age-related: As we age, our enamel wears away and makes teeth become more yellow. This can be caused by an assortment of things, including both intrinsic and extrinsic causes.
Here’s a handy-dandy list of causes by color!
Does coffee stain your teeth?
Given that coffee is acidic (though not as acidic as some beers), full of tannins, and consumed regularly… Yeah, that can have a significant effect. I mean, it’s pretty apparent that coffee has the potential to encourage tooth decay and discoloration if consumed without care.
The tannins and other acidic compounds in coffee are likely to cause staining, yes, but before you decide “tannins = bad”, it’s important to recognize that coffee is “the number 1 source of antioxidants in the US diet” (source) and that’s thanks to these tannins.
On top of the basic chemistry, it appears that any beverage that isn’t water can cause bacteria to grow in your mouth that will also lead to enamel erosion. As well, additives to coffee can cause issues, as seen in the next section.
Does sugar cause tooth stain? Does Coffee Stain Teeth Less If You Add Cream?
If we want to think beyond pure, black coffee, then we also need to consider the sugars, creams, and creamers often put in coffee.
Sugars also encourage the growth of bacteria that will give you bad breath – and these bacteria expel acids after eating the sugar. So… lose-lose. Sugar encourages the growth of Streptococcus mutans, which is the main cause of gingivitis and plaque – both of which will discolor your teeth.
Creamers are often made with lots of synthetic BS and chock full of sugar, so they’d fall in the same class as pure sugar.
As for cream, some people think that whiter coffees will be less of a risk because either they believe the cream/milk will cancel out some of the acids, or it will somehow weaken the strength of the dye.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The acids are not terribly weakened because both cream and milk are roughly neutral pH. They will only slightly water down the acid. As well, the tannins (again, a dye) are all still fully present.
TL;DR: sugars will make the situation worse for your teeth; dairy will not save you.
How do you protect your teeth?
Back to the Dentist: the advice given to me by a dentist is that you want to flush your teeth with water or, better yet, a base that will neutralize the acids. Letting acids sit on any surface will allow for it to further eat away at the surface, and your teeth are no exception.
The acids in most things we eat and drink aren’t terribly strong, but over time it will take a toll on your teeth.
It’s also important to note that you should not brush your teeth immediately after eating anything acidic. The acids can cause your enamel to be softer than usual, meaning that your brush can remove some of it. It was recommended to wait at least an hour to brush. But again, it’s safe to rinse your mouth with water or toothpaste. Be wary of mouthwashes, as many are acidic.
The absolute worst thing to do would be to eat and drink nothing but sugars and acids (like syrupy coffee), all while avoiding flushing them away, and then waiting for hours while breathing through your mouth (drying up saliva). Wait as long as possible before drinking water. Consume a lot of sugar.
Do the opposite of the previous paragraph. Also, consider chewing gum to protect your teeth (source), as it seems to increase the production of saliva, and saliva protects against tooth decay and gum disease (source).
For a list of home remedies for whitening your teeth, check out this post.
What are good strategies to protect your teeth while enjoying coffee?
I listed them all, sprinkled throughout above, but if you wanted a boiled-down version, here it is:
- Drink all your coffee in one sitting; avoid sipping for hours.
- Rinse out your mouth with water or a base after finishing your coffee
- I use toothpaste, but you will want to look up your brand to make sure the pH is basic (pH>7). Do not use mouthwash (often acidic).
- Avoid sugars and creamers.
- Don’t be fooled by dairy – just because the coffee is a lighter color doesn’t mean the dyes and acids are gone. Cream/Milk are relatively neutral, so they won’t neutralize the acids.
- Avoid brushing after ingesting acids. The acids can soften your enamel, meaning brushing can do more harm than good.
- Chew gum – I didn’t dig too deeply into this one, but the theory is that chewing gum causes more saliva to be released, thus helping to protect your teeth and flush out acids. Unclear if those findings were funded by the industry or not (meaning they’d be less trustworthy).