What to Know Before Whitening Older Teeth

Beautiful teeth are healthy, straight, and white.

It’s this last quality—whiteness—that can be maddening for many people as they age. Despite brushing, flossing, and regular cleanings, people still see their once-white teeth turning dull. Discolored teeth can make a smile less attractive and make a person seem older than they really are.

What can be done about it?

When brushing isn’t giving you the white smile you’ve always wanted, many people turn to teeth whitening. We’re fortunate to have many options these days, from at-home toothpastes and gels to sophisticated in-office techniques. But before you buy that DIY kit or book an appointment, here’s what you should know about whitening older teeth.

What Causes Older Teeth to Turn Yellow/Brown/Gray?

To understand what’s really going on when you have your teeth whitened, let’s look at the structure of the tooth first.

At the core is the dental pulp, which is comprised of connective tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. Next comes a layer of dentin, which is a protective layer that’s porous and yellow in color. Finally, there’s what we’re most familiar with, the enamel, or the hard, white outer layer on the tooth.

Despite how hard it is, enamel can become stained from certain foods, drinks, and products, like coffee, tea, red wine, and tobacco. It can also start to turn yellow, brown, or grey due to cavities, decay, and tartar build up.

Many cases of dingy teeth actually aren’t stains on the enamel at all. Discoloration can occur when the enamel thins, allowing the dentin underneath to show through. This means you’re not seeing discoloration on the surface of the enamel, but the natural color of the dentin underneath. Enamel thins naturally with age, and can wear away prematurely for many other reasons, including acid reflux, excessive soda intake, and tooth grinding.

Older teeth are more likely to be discolored simply because they’ve had more years of wear and tear, food and drink, and possibly neglect.

What to Know About Tooth Whitening

At-home solutions can be great for whitening teeth a shade or two, but you’ll never get the same results that you would from a whitening procedure from your dentist. Keep in mind that teeth can be sensitive for one to two days after whitening, and that stubborn stains may take a few sessions to remove.

Several approaches to teeth whitening work well for surface stains on the enamel of the tooth. If your discoloration comes from the yellow dentin showing through worn enamel, these may not work as well for you and could result in some disappointment. That’s why you want to talk to your dentist first before starting any DIY care, to better understand what’s causing your dull teeth and what your options are.

Whiter Teeth Equal a Younger Smile

Many patients I’ve treated are amazed at not only how much better their smile looks after whitening, but how much younger white teeth make them look, too. Remember, just because your teeth are “older” doesn’t mean they have to look it.