About 18 percent of people report “usually concealing their teeth in photos,” many due to being embarrassed over the yellow appearance of their teeth. Having great teeth is very important in our culture today — hence the growing number of people using white strips and whitening paste as part of their oral care at home or turning to professional in-office whitening treatments. Your teeth are one of the first things people notice; they’re a sign of health as well as confidence. When making a first impression, most worry about having aged, crooked or discolored teeth, which can send a signal that you don’t really care about yourself. Who doesn’t want to have a beautiful smile with white, sparkling teeth? But what’s the best way to whiten your teeth?
Some people — no matter how many times they brush their teeth — have teeth stains from habits like drinking coffee or tea and/or smoking. Oftentimes yellow- or brown-tinted teeth can also point to a larger problem: unhealthy gums, thinning enamel and overall poor dental hygiene. Whitening the teeth alone won’t help protect the teeth or gums from cavities or diseases, such as gingivitis — so while white teeth are certainly a nice thing to have, it helps to keep things in perspective.
As one dentist reporting for the Dentistry IQ website puts it, “It is a misnomer that whiter teeth are the same as healthy teeth, since tooth color has very little to do with the health of the tooth. The consumer perception, though, is that white teeth equal a healthy mouth, and perception is reality.” (1) Here’s the good news: Below I explain several home remedies that help naturally whiten your teeth, while also improving overall oral hygiene. The kind of toothpaste you use plus regular brushing and flossing, using baking soda , coconut oil pulling, and tooth-healthy diet can all whiten your teeth naturally — in addition to offering benefits like antibacterial and antiseptic protection.
You may also want to check out the Environmental Working Group’s recommendations for the best kinds of toothpaste for teeth whitening.
Why Do Teeth Turn Yellow?
Teeth become discolored, turning yellow or even a beige or brown color, due to stains that develop on both the hard, white surface of teeth (the enamel) as well as deeper within the teeth’s structure.
Underneath the enamel is a pale brown substance called dentin, which can become more visible when enamel gets thinner — a very common occurrence for many adults. (2) Dental erosion (erosive tooth wear) results from chronic loss of dental hard tissue that is chemically etched away from the tooth surface by acid and/or chelation (without bacterial involvement). (3) What are some of the reasons enamel thins? Risk factors include aging, genetics and intake of foods that promote erosion and/or staining. Many of these same unhealthy habits also increase your risk for gum disease.
While it’s unrealistic to expect that your teeth will remain shiny and very white into older age, many factors that accelerate the rate of teeth discoloration can be avoided.
Some of the reasons teeth turn yellow, beige or brown include:
- Drinking coffee or tea
- Smoking cigarettes
- Thinning tooth enamel due to aging
- Eating a poor diet. This includes consuming lots of processed foods high in acid, including soft drinks/soda, candies or sometimes even certain fruits. Even some supplements can worsen enamel thinning due to their acid content.
- Suffering from dry mouth (since lack of saliva means less protection for enamel)
- Breathing through your mouth and having blocked nasal passages. These conditions lower the amount of saliva and prevent the teeth/mouth from remoisturizing
- Antibiotic use
- Excessive fluoride intake, especially if this habit starts when you’re a child
- Genetic factors
How to Naturally Whiten Your Teeth
1. Brush After Drinking or Eating
The best way to whiten your teeth naturally — though maybe not always the easiest — is to simply brush your teeth with an appropriate toothpaste after eating or drinking something. This takes a lot of persistence and can even be kind of difficult depending on where you are at the time of eating (such as work or school).
Avoiding smoking cigarettes, drinking too much coffee and/or soda, improving your oral hygiene overall, and eating a healthy diet can all also help prevent yellow teeth. If you do regularly drink staining beverages, do so through a straw and try to cut back. Try to drink more plain water after eating or drinking something staining or acidic to help reduce the negative effects.
Most food does not stain teeth, but if you are a coffee drinker or if you smoke, you can pretty much count on having discolored teeth over time due to thinning enamel and/or staining. If this is the case, then having your teeth cleaned every three months may be in order, besides trying some of the natural remedies listed here.
2. Coconut Oil Pulling
Can it be true? Coconut oil to clean your teeth? Just when you thought you heard it all when it comes to coconut oil, along comes the news that coconut oil pulling can serve as a natural teeth whitener. Some people attest to their teeth becoming whiter and overall healthier by applying coconut oil to their teeth after they brush, and most people praise the results of oil pulling.
To oil pull, simply put a spoonful of coconut oil in your mouth and swish it between your teeth for five to 20 minutes, or add a few drops to your toothbrush and brush it on. Another oral care option is to apply coconut oil to a corner of a clean washcloth and rub it on the teeth. A bonus regarding coconut pulling? Coconut oil has antimicrobial properties, so it’s great for protecting and cleaning your gums as well.
A study featured in the Journal of Contemporary Dental Hygiene found, “Edible oil-pulling therapy is natural, safe and has no side effects. Hence, it can be considered as a preventive therapy at home to maintain oral hygiene.” (6)
3. Use Apple Cider Vinegar
It makes sense that apple cider vinegar (ACV), which effectively works as a natural antibiotic and teeth/gum cleanser, would also be able to remove stubborn stains on the teeth. ACV is especially helpful for removing stains due to common culprits like coffee and nicotine (smoking). Some report that after using ACV it looks like you just got your teeth professionally cleaned!
What’s the secret of ACV? It contains compounds, including acetic acid, potassium, magnesium, probiotics and enzymes, which kill germs (dangerous “bad” bacteria) and at the same time foster the growth of beneficial “good” probiotic bacteria. Since it’s naturally acidic, it helps break down plaque or other substances stuck to the teeth. The pH of apple cider vinegar can remove stains from your teeth, which helps naturally whiten your teeth.
The key to using ACV for teeth whitening is to be consistent, using it for at least a month continuously in order to see the best results. However, be careful, as with all acids it can remove the enamel on your teeth if you brush too hard or use too much. After brushing with ACV, you need to brush again with regular toothpaste, preferably a non-fluoride paste, or rinse your mouth out well.
Take your finger and rub apple cider vinegar on your teeth for about one minute. Then rinse your mouth out with water or a hydrogen peroxide rinse.
4. Lemon or Orange Peels
Similarly to apple cider vinegar, some swear that using citrus fruits — including lemon and/or orange peels, or lemon essential oil, which contain beneficial acids — also does the trick for whitening teeth. These foods overall are very healthy, such as benefiting digestion due to regulating levels of stomach acid, but the high acid content can also eventually wear away the enamel on the teeth if used too aggressively. Like with ACV, if you use lemon or orange peel on your teeth, always rinse your mouth afterward to be on the safe side. Use the hydrogen peroxide oral rinse formula described above for best results.
5. Strawberries and Other Healthy Foods
Rumor has it that some celebrities whiten their teeth with healthy foods like strawberries. Who would have thought? Model Tyra Banks even tried this tooth-whitening trick on her show. She simply mashed up about four or five strawberries and rubbed this yummy mixture all over her teeth, then rinsed well afterward.
Still, researchers aren’t all keen on this tooth whitening method. A 2015 study published in Operative Dentistry found that while an organic strawberry-baking soda mixture did remove superficial debris on the teeth, it didn’t actually whiten them or break down stain molecules.
Furthermore, the mixture reduced the surface hardness of teeth, known as microhardness, by up to 10 percent, due to the erosive effect of citric acid in the fruit.
Now, berries do contain many beneficial antioxidants and other compounds that can benefit the health of your teeth, but their role in dental health is likely tied to the benefits of an overall healthy diet for your teeth. Foods that can help keep your gums and teeth strong, plus free from diseases or signs of aging, include teeth-strengthening foods like: (7)
- sources of calcium like yogurt or raw milk
- foods high in magnesium and potassium like leafy green veggies, apples or pears
- cage-free eggs
- sweet potatoes, carrots or squash
- nuts like walnuts or almonds
6. Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal, an absorbing product used to trap toxins inside the body, may help whiten your teeth by absorbing plaque and microscopic tidbits that cause staining. To whiten your teeth naturally with charcoal, wet a toothbrush and dip into powdered activated charcoal. Brush teeth as normal, paying special attention to areas showing the most staining. Sip a bit of water, swish through mouth thoroughly and spit. Rinse well, until spit is clear. For best results, brush your teeth with activated charcoal two to three times per week, but avoid using it if you have crowns, caps or porcelain veneers.
Dangers of Conventional Products to Whiten Your Teeth
Research has shown that teeth-whitening products can damage the teeth by removing too much enamel. Conventional whitening strips, and other whitening products, contain a gel with the active ingredient carbamide peroxide, which breaks down into hydrogen peroxide and a waste product called urea. Constant application of whitening strips has been shown to cause erosion of enamel over time and also promote tooth sensitivity, especially when eating hot and cold liquids or acidic foods.
Dentists from the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry have stated, “All of the products used in the dentist office are safe and most of the [over-the-counter] products are safe as well, but there are a few that are acidic, and acidic products increase the likelihood of decay if you overuse them.” (8)
While many people are interested in having whiter teeth, some make this an obsession and turn whitening into a borderline addiction. Here’s what one dentist, New York City dentist Dr. Irwin Smigel, president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics, had to say about teeth whitening strips:
There are people who can never get enough. I’ve had situations where people have needed root canals because they’ve overbleached, where tissues were damaged. You can wear away some of the enamel and your teeth will become translucent and unnatural. They’ll become blue or blue gray.
The bottom line? Whitening strips should be used in moderation, ideally after you’ve tried natural approaches to taking better care of your teeth.
Teeth bleaching products should only be used under the guidance of your dentist. Remember that whitening treatments may work temporarily but likely not for long. The best way to whiten your teeth is by feeding your body lots of healthy foods (these are also important for strong bones), brushing and rinsing your teeth and gums every day, plus working on omitting coffee, tea and sugary foods in your diet. The very first step you should take: If you smoke, stop smoking! And of course, no matter what your age, show your teeth some love by brushing with a natural, non-irritating toothpaste every day.
Precautions: Can Even Natural Teeth Whitening Harm Your Teeth?
One thing to be aware of when it comes to whitening teeth is that certain natural whiteners can eradicate enamel. Some teeth whiteners are just not a good idea to use, especially lemon juice. While the lemon peel is actually a good, healthy way to whiten teeth, the juice itself is simply too strong. The acid in the actual lemon juice does great for bleaching clothes, hair and getting stains out of furniture, but you wouldn’t want to put lemon juice on your teeth as a mouth gum cleaner every single day. Eventually, the acid creates tiny holes in your teeth, and then every kind of staining type food will seep into these tiny holes and remain there. The acid from the lemons is so strong it just eventually wears away the teeth, causing cavities.
To avoid overdoing teeth whitening, start gradually, only use a small amount of any product, follow directions and pay attention to signs of worsening sensitivity.
Key Points on How to Whiten Teeth Naturally
- Teeth become less white (yellow or brown colored) due to factors like aging, thinning enamel/erosion of the surface of teeth, a poor diet, drinking coffee/tea, smoking and suffering from dry mouth.
- Teeth-whitening products can damage the teeth by removing too much enamel. Constant application of whitening strips has been shown to cause erosion and negative effects on dental health, so don’t whiten your teeth this way.
- Ways you can naturally whiten your teeth, while also protecting enamel, include using coconut oil pulling; eating a healthy diet; brushing and flossing; staying hydrated; and trying activated charcoal.