Are Yellow Teeth Healthy or Unhealthy?

Written & Reviewed by Dr David Chen

For most people yellow teeth are healthy but there is one particular situation where it can be unhealthy. The determining factor is why your teeth are yellow and what is causing it.

cup of coffee with pot

For instance, cosmetic staining from pigmented foods are typically harmless since they do not affect the function nor structural integrity of your teeth. On the other hand, teeth can also yellow from periodontal disease which is NOT healthy.

We’re going to explore in-depth for both types of situations, when those yellowing teeth are unhealthy or healthy!

When yellow teeth are healthy

Despite their appearance, most yellow teeth are considered healthy because the discoloration is purely cosmetic in nature. The color of your teeth don’t affect the form, function, nor structural integrity of the tooth.

That means it has no effect on how you chew and how you speak even if they look yellow. Essentially your teeth function no differently than if they were white in color.

Perhaps it’ll make a lot more sense if you understand all the ways that teeth can become stained yellow and how you can change them back to white.

Here are the causes of healthy yellow teeth:

  • Intrinsic stains
  • Extrinsic stains

Yellow teeth from intrinsic staining

Those who drink a LOT of coffee, tea, and red wine can develop teeth stains that penetrate deep beyond the surface of the enamel. These types of stains cannot be brushed away because they’re located beneath the surface. We call them intrinsic stains since they are deeply embedded within the tooth.

The intrinsic stains cannot be removed mechanically via brushing with abrasives in whitening toothpastes. The only way to get rid of these internal stains is by chemically oxidizing them with a bleaching agent such as hydrogen peroxide.

hydrogen peroxide

When peroxide comes into contact with the enamel, it can diffuse through it which permits it to oxidize all of the intrinsic stains along the way. It is even potent enough to diffuse all the way to the pulp of the tooth.

Therefore how you revert a yellow tooth with intrinsic stains back to white is by chemically oxidizing them with peroxide. That is essentially how hydrogen peroxide works in whitening your teeth.

The point that we want to make is that this bleaching process for reversing the yellowing causes no irreversible damage. The teeth can re-yellow if you keep drinking staining beverages and eat pigmented foods.

Consequently, the structural integrity of the tooth remains intact despite the back and forth with the staining and whitening. In other words, yellow teeth have no overbearing adverse effects on your health. It may decrease your self esteem but it does not prevent you from eating and speaking. They are considered healthy if your teeth are yellow due to intrinsic stains.

Yellow teeth from extrinsic staining

Your teeth can also yellow from extrinsic staining, which are stains that are located solely on the surface of the enamel. These tend to form quickly but the good news is that they haven’t penetrated beyond the enamel surface.

Causes of extrinsic tooth stains:

  • Red wine
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Pigmented food and beverages that can stain your white t-shirt.

Since these stains are located on the surface of your enamel, it means that your toothbrush with whitening toothpaste CAN reach them. Yes, that means you can remove them via mechanical brushing. It is as simple as that.

colgate total toothpaste

In fact, according to studies it is the abrasives within toothpastes which give them their whitening potential. The extrinsic stain removal process is literally a physical scrubbing of the tooth to remove this extra layer of stain that is on top of your enamel.

All whitening toothpastes utilize an abrasive within it to “whiten” your teeth. That is essentially how whitening toothpastes work.

ToothpasteWhitening AbrasiveRelative Dentin Abrasivity (RDA)
Colgate TotalHydrated silicon dioxide44
Oral B, Colgate whitening, SensodyneHydrated silica65
Tom’sCalcium carbonate, Sodium bicarbonate, hydrated silica49
Arm & HammerSodium bicarbonate8
Hello activated charcoalActivated charcoal90.67
PepsodentSilicon dioxide50
ClinomynCalcium cabonate, Silicon dioxide, Aluminium silicate124
Whitening toothpastes and their abrasives

This is quite different from the intrinsic stain removal process which is chemical in nature rather than mechanical. It can also explain why your teeth can still be yellow despite brushing everyday. That can happen if you have intrinsic stains but you’re using extrinsic stain removal methods, which means it won’t be very effective!

Nonetheless, what you should take away from this is that the yellowing of teeth from extrinsic stains is easily reversible. It is not unhealthy for your teeth since they occur on the external surface of the tooth. It does not affect the internal structure nor integrity of your dentition.

In conclusion, yellow teeth from extrinsic stains ARE healthy. If you were interested in getting rid of it, you should try to find the best whitening toothpaste.

The only time that yellow teeth is unhealthy

There is one exception to when yellow teeth are healthy and that is when they’re caused by tartar (calculus) build up. Yellow looking teeth that are from heavy tartar build up is unhealthy because it is indicative of gum disease.

It’s not just your tooth that can pick up staining because the plaque and tartar can also become stained. For instance, those who smoke a lot can develop a lot of black stains on their teeth called black tartar. However if you have tartar covering your enamel, these stains won’t stain the enamel but rather your tartar instead.

That is an extreme case but for the vast majority of people, the foods that they eat and drink will merely stain their teeth yellow. Consequently if you have a lot of calculus build up, you’ll simply change the color of it to yellow tartar.

Yellow tartar means you have periodontal disease

If your teeth look yellow because you have a lot of stained yellow tartar, that is not healthy. Your teeth are most likely unhealthy because having tartar present means that your gums will bleed a lot when you brush and floss.

Bleeding gums from brushing or flossing is an indication that you have gingivitis, the first stage of gum disease. Therefore in this case, yellow teeth from stained tartar is equivalent to having gingivitis and that is unhealthy.

If you have this, you cannot leave it alone and untreated. This type of discoloration is NOT just cosmetic in nature because there is an actual disease associated with it. You will need the gingivitis treated with a trip to the dentist for a dental cleaning.

The good news is that the teeth cleaning should fix the gum disease and the yellow staining as well. Since the teeth look yellow because of stained tartar, once it comes off from the cleaning your teeth should look a lot whiter.

What if I leave it untreated?

There are consequences if you leave yellow calculus untreated. The tartar will grow and cover more of your teeth and can even form a calculus bridge.

Essentially your teeth will become MORE yellow and the gingivitis will get WORSE. The additional yellowing will make the cosmetics even worse. The untreated gingivitis will allow the gum disease to progress to the next stage called periodontitis.

If you end up with periodontitis, a regular dental cleaning will not suffice. Instead you will require a deep teeth cleaning. That requires more treatment visits and consequently costs more.

The Verdict

Depending on what is causing your yellow teeth, it can be healthy or unhealthy. It is important to know the distinction because one requires prompt treatment while the other one is purely elective in nature.

So, why are your teeth yellow? Is it just extrinsic and intrinsic stains or is it from tartar build up? You need to see a dentist for the latter but it wouldn’t hurt to go for the former either!


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