White teeth are pretty, but a pretty smile isn’t always a healthy smile. On the other side of the coin, yellow teeth aren’t necessarily unhealthy.

When are yellow teeth okay, and when are they a sign of health issues? The answer depends on the cause.

Teeth Aren’t White

The truth is, teeth aren’t actually white. Though they look white compared to the mouth and lips, they’re off-white or pale yellow.

Teeth are made up of layers. The top layer is enamel, which doesn’t have much color. It’s semi-translucent. Under the enamel, you’ll find dentin, which is yellow. The dentin can show through the enamel, lending a faint yellow undertone even to healthy teeth.


Often, yellow teeth are just stained. Drinks like coffee or wine can create this type of stain.

If that’s the cause, it doesn’t necessarily say anything about your health. Sometimes, tooth stains are just an aesthetic problem.

But if you have yellow teeth, don’t just say, “They’re only stained!” and call it a day. Only a dentist will be able to tell whether your tooth stains are serious or not.


As you age, the enamel on your teeth can thin. Though this isn’t ideal, it doesn’t necessarily mean your teeth are unhealthy. It’s a natural process. As the enamel thins, the yellow color of dentin will show through more and more.

Aging is often associated with gum disease and tooth loss. Those problems are entirely avoidable if you take care of your mouth. Yellowing teeth, on the other hand, are inevitable unless you have them whitened.

Acidic and Sugary Foods

Sugary and acidic foods weaken enamel. If you eat these foods often and don’t brush your teeth (or at least rinse your mouth) as much as you should, your enamel can become porous, causing it to cling to stains.

Here’s an interesting example: Black tea doesn’t stain teeth unless the teeth have been made porous by exposure to acid.

Porous enamel is also far more vulnerable to cavity formation.

Unhealthy Lifestyle

Tooth staining can be the result of unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking or excessive drinking.


  • Inhaled nicotine and tobacco can turn your teeth yellow, tan, or even brown.
  • Nicotine causes dry mouth, which leads to gum disease.


  • Like nicotine, alcohol causes dry mouth.
  • Dark alcohols like red wine stain teeth.
  • If you mix your alcohol with dark sodas or sugary liquids, the mixture will weaken your enamel and stain it.

Poor Hygiene

Sometimes, yellow teeth are caused by the most obvious culprit — bad oral hygiene.

Many of the problems listed in this article, like sugar-weakened enamel, could be prevented simply with better hygiene. That means brushing, flossing, and rinsing regularly.

More importantly, if poor hygiene is the cause of your yellow teeth, you’re setting yourself up for other problems: gum disease, cavities, and more.

In addition to proper oral care at home, attend regular dental cleanings. No matter how well you brush your teeth, regular cleanings with your dentist are beneficial.

Exposed Dentin

Exposed dentin is one of the most uncomfortable causes of yellow teeth. It happens when some of your enamel has worn away completely.

Here are some common causes of exposed dentin:

  • Teeth grinding
  • Rough tooth brushing
  • Receding gums
  • Broken teeth
  • Cavities

If your dentin is exposed, you can’t fix that at home. Make a dental appointment.

When White Teeth Are Unhealthy

If you’ve got lovely white teeth, that doesn’t mean you can relax! Dentists see white teeth with cavities all the time. Cavities can start forming within minutes of eating sugary treats.

Incorrectly applied tooth whitening kits also weaken enamel. So does brushing too hard. Use an electric toothbrush with a pressure sensor so it will stop brushing if you get too rough with your teeth.


Unless teeth are a crazy color, just looking at them won’t always tell you whether they’re healthy. Some people have healthy yellow teeth. Others have fragile, unhealthy pearly whites.

If you’re wondering what yellow teeth mean for your oral health, ask your dentist.