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Drinking Habits

Wine Stains on Teeth: Alcohol vs. Your Pearly Whites

June 30, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 30, 2023
21 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 30, 2023
21 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 30, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 30, 2023
21 min read

Ever glanced in the mirror after enjoying a glass of red and noticed that your smile seemed a shade darker? You're not alone. Many of us have caught a glimpse of our reflection after sipping some Merlot only to find that — yikes! — our teeth are more purple than we’d like. Red teeth are not exactly the best look, right? (Thankfully, today there are plenty of photo apps that will give us our pearly whites back before any mulberry-tooth photos end up on Facebook).

Still, there’s more to the subject of wine stains on teeth than aesthetics. Today we're going to explore why wine stains our teeth, and what we can do about it.

The Science of Tannins

Wine — especially red wine — is chock full of compounds called tannins. Tannins are plant-based substances found in many types of foods. You might have heard of them in relation to tea or coffee, which can also leave their mark on our teeth.

Tannins are a group of polyphenolic compounds present in many plants. They’re abundant in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes — essential ingredients in the wine-making process. Phenols in plants often contribute to their colors. For example, anthocyanins, a type of phenolic compound, are responsible for the red, purple, and blue colors in many fruits and vegetables. Many phenolic compounds in plants have antimicrobial properties, helping plants fend off bacterial and fungal invaders. (Fun fact: one of the most well-known phenols is carbolic acid, which was used by Joseph Lister as the first antiseptic during surgical procedures, revolutionizing medical surgery.)

Polyphenols, as their name suggests, are molecules that have multiple (poly) phenol units. Their structures give polyphenols, including tannins, the ability to interact with various organic molecules, especially proteins. This property is one reason tannins play a significant role in the texture and aging process of wine. Wines with high tannin content tend to feel drier in the mouth. Over time, tannins can precipitate, leading to the formation of sediment in aged bottles. While this sediment isn't harmful, it's another testament to tannins’ reactive nature.

Tannins and Teeth

But why do these tannins have such a love/hate relationship with our teeth? The answer has to do with tooth structure and with the way wine is absorbed by the body. A tooth is primarily made up of three parts:

  • Enamel. Tooth enamel is the outermost layer of a tooth. It's the hardest and most mineralized substance in the human body, predominantly composed of hydroxyapatite, a crystalline structure made of calcium and phosphate.
  • Dentin. Located beneath the enamel and making up the bulk of the tooth's structure, dentin is a porous material that can easily absorb substances — a process that leads to deeper stains. 
  • Pulp. This is the central part of the tooth, containing nerves and blood vessels.

When we sip wine, the tannins bind to the proline-rich proteins in our saliva. This reaction both contributes to wine's astringent taste and also increases its tendency to stain. When the tannin-protein complex settles into the crevices in our teeth, it leads to discoloration. In addition to tannins, chromogens — compounds that give red wine its color — also cling to the surface of our teeth. 

And there you have it: red teeth after a glass of Merlot! 

Does red wine stain teeth permanently? Thankfully, no. Later on, we’ll talk more about getting rid of wine stains, but rest assured that you’re not doomed to have purple teeth forever (phew!).

The Acidic Aspect

There's more to this story. Wine’s acidic nature softens tooth enamel and makes it more porous. This makes it easier for the tannins to find their spot and stick around for longer than we’d like.

What about white wine? Since red and white wines are equally acidic, both contribute to the damage. So, in the end, even white wine can lead to stains indirectly by weakening the enamel of our teeth.

What about mouthwash? Can mouthwash stain teeth? Not really. In fact, many types of mouthwash contain ingredients like hydrogen peroxide and cetylpyridinium chloride that can actually reduce stains and whiten teeth over time. However, mouthwash containing essential oils like eucalyptol, menthol, thymol, and methyl salicylate may sometimes cause a slight yellowing of the teeth, especially if there's already a plaque buildup. 

Spot the Difference

That said, it’s worth exploring other possible sources of staining on teeth to pinpoint the cause more precisely and determine whether wine is the reason behind the problem. Dental issues vary widely in origin and appearance, and to maintain optimal oral health, we need to discern between stains and other issues that might call for a trip to the dentist.

  • Extrinsic vs. intrinsic stains. Extrinsic stains are surface stains on the enamel. They're usually yellow or brown and are caused by foods, drinks, or smoking. Wine stains fall into this category. On the other hand, intrinsic tooth stains occur inside and can be gray, black, or even bluish. They can result from trauma, medications, excessive fluoride, or disease.
  • Dental plaque. Dental plaque is a soft, sticky film that builds up on our teeth. Plaque contains millions of bacteria, and it’s the primary cause of gum disease and cavities if it’s not removed. Plaque might look like a fuzzy, white or yellowish substance that coats the surface, especially near the gumline. 

    (Side note: alcohol could play a role here as well by drying out the mouth, which can lead to an increased buildup of plaque)
  • Tartar (calculus). If dental plaque is not removed, it hardens due to the calcium in saliva and turns into tartar. Tartar can further stain, making it more noticeable. Tartar feels hard and is rougher than plaque. It typically appears near the gumline and can be yellow or brown.
  • Cavities (dental caries). Cavities are permanently damaged areas in the teeth that develop into tiny holes or openings. They arise from bacteria in the mouth consuming sugar and releasing acids that erode tooth enamel. Cavities might appear as white spots initially but can turn into larger brown or black holes. Unlike stains, cavities alter the structure of the tooth, and they can also cause pain or sensitivity.

    (Once again, alcohol could have a hand in this. Many alcoholic beverages — especially cocktails or mixers — contain high amounts of sugar. Sugar is a primary food source for harmful oral bacteria that produce acids, leading to tooth decay).
  • Tooth erosion. Tooth erosion is the wearing away of the tooth surface by acid. Over time, the enamel can get thinner, exposing the underlying dentin. Eroded teeth can appear yellow because dentin is exposed. They might also look rounded, have a sand-blasted look, or be translucent at the edges and can become sensitive.

    (As we saw earlier, the acidic nature of wine can be a major contributor to erosion, whether or not it directly leads to stains).
  • Dental abscess. This is a pocket of pus that's caused by a bacterial infection. It can occur in different parts of the tooth, causing throbbing pain, swelling, and a bad taste in the mouth. The gums might appear swollen and red, and there might be a pimple-like bump on the gums. (This one might require immediate attention before it gets out of hand).

To tell the difference between these potential causes of discoloration, focus on these features:

  • Location and appearance. Stains generally appear on the surface, while cavities or erosions impact the tooth's structure. Tartar and plaque often accumulate near the gumline.
  • Feel. Running your tongue over the tooth can help. Stains don’t alter the tooth's texture, but plaque feels fuzzy, tartar feels hard, and cavities might feel like holes or pits.
  • Sensitivity. Cavities, abscesses, and erosion can cause pain or sensitivity, while stains usually don’t.
  • Professional diagnosis. The most definitive way to understand dental issues is through regular dental check-ups. Dentists use tools and X-rays to diagnose and distinguish between various problems accurately.

Cheers to Oral Health

But there's good news, if you're considering reducing your alcohol intake: cutting back on wine can do wonders for your oral health. In addition to avoiding the wine-stained teeth caused by the tannins — and other possible dental problems — you'll also set yourself up for better health in general. It's a win-win! 

If you do choose to drink, though — or if you’re in the process of cutting back — let's look at some practical strategies that can help keep your smile bright in the meantime:

Diagram about preventing wine stains

Prevent Wine Stains on Teeth

  • Hydrate. Keep water handy while you're drinking wine. Sip on it between your wine gulps. This will wash away some of the wine and tannins from your teeth, and also keep you hydrated. After drinking wine, swish some water around in your mouth to help wash away the staining compounds. This can be especially helpful if you're not able to brush your teeth immediately after.
  • Dine while you wine. Eating while you're drinking can help produce saliva, which naturally cleans your teeth. Cheese, in particular, can help counteract the acidity of the wine.
  • The “great wine swap.” If you're not quite ready to say goodbye to your wine, consider switching from red to white. White wine has fewer tannins than red, which means less chance of staining. However, keep in mind that white wine is still acidic, so the same precautions apply.
  • Limit your exposure. The longer the wine is in contact with your teeth, the more chance it has to leave a stain. Try not to swish the wine around in your mouth, and consider taking small sips instead of larger gulps.
  • Drink through a straw. This might not be the most elegant solution, especially when you're sipping a high-quality wine, but it can reduce the amount of liquid that actually comes into contact with your teeth.
  • Brush before, not after. Brushing your teeth before drinking wine can remove plaque that tannins might cling to. However, brushing right after drinking wine can harm the enamel, which is already softened by the wine's acidity.
  • Maintain good oral hygiene. Regular brushing and flossing can remove surface stains and prevent them from penetrating deeper into the tooth. Additionally, brushing with a toothpaste containing mild abrasives or chemicals like hydrogen peroxide can further reduce staining. Instead, use a toothpaste that strengthens the tooth enamel to prevent or mitigate the damage.
  • Use a whitening toothpaste or mouthwash. These products help lighten any stains that have already formed on your teeth. They often contain ingredients like hydrogen peroxide to break down stains.
  • Consider a stain-removing toothbrush. Some toothbrushes are specially designed to remove stains. If wine stains are a significant concern for you, it might be worth considering investing in one.
  • Get a professional cleaning. Regular dental appointments for professional cleanings can help remove any tannins that have settled in for the long haul. Dental hygienists use specialized tools and polishing agents to remove surface stains effectively.
  • Whitening procedures. For deeper stains, various professional whitening treatments use strong bleaching agents to break down and remove the stain-causing compounds.
  • Wine wipes for teeth. Wine wipes are a product designed to help remove the temporary stains on teeth that can be caused by drinking red wine. They typically come in small, individually packaged wipes that are convenient to carry and use discreetly. They often contain ingredients like hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, or calcium to clean the teeth and possibly help neutralize acids, along with ingredients designed to freshen the breath.

A Tooth-Friendly Diet

Last but not least, consider your diet. Certain foods are particularly beneficial for oral health. They either provide essential nutrients for strengthening teeth and gums, assist in cleaning the teeth, or combat harmful bacteria in the mouth. Here are some foods that are good for your teeth:

  • High-fiber foods. Foods that are high in fiber, such as raw fruits and vegetables, help scrub your teeth clean as you eat them. These foods can be especially helpful to eat before drinking wine.
  • Cheese. Cheese raises the pH in the mouth, reducing the risk of tooth decay. It's also rich in calcium and protein, nutrients that strengthen tooth enamel.
  • Leafy greens. Spinach, kale, and other leafy greens are high in calcium, which builds tooth enamel. They also contain folic acid, a type of vitamin B, which has numerous health benefits, including possibly treating gum disease (while keeping your liver in top shape!)
  • Apples. While it's true that fruits like apples are sweet, they're also high in water and fiber. Eating an apple produces saliva in your mouth, which rinses away bacteria and food particles. The fibrous texture of the apple also stimulates the gums.
  • Carrots. Like apples, carrots are crunchy and full of fiber. A handful of raw carrots at the end of a meal increases saliva production, reducing the risk of cavities.
  • Celery. It acts a bit like a toothbrush, scraping food particles and bacteria away from your teeth. It's also a good source of vitamins A and C, which give the health of your gums a boost.
  • Almonds. They are great for your teeth because they're a good source of calcium and protein while being low in sugar.
  • Yogurt. Yogurt contains beneficial probiotics (good bacteria) and is also rich in calcium and protein. Make sure to choose a plain variety with no added sugar.
  • Fish. Fatty fishes such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel are rich in phosphorus, an essential mineral for protecting enamel. They are also an excellent source of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb and use calcium effectively.
  • Milk and eggs. These are rich sources of calcium and other vital minerals necessary for tooth health. They also contain vitamin D, which helps the body utilize calcium.
  • Water (especially fluoridated water). It acts as a cleanser, washing away leftover food and residue. Fluoride, present in most public water sources, helps prevent tooth decay by making teeth more resistant to acid attacks from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth.

Wrapping Up

Drinking wine doesn't have to come at the expense of your dental health or your personal wellness goals: every little step counts. Every glass of wine skipped or swapped for water, every pre-drinking brushing session, every healthy snack consumed while sipping — these all add up. With a bit of effort, wine-stained teeth can be a thing of the past!

Summary FAQs

1. Why does wine, especially red wine, often leave stains on our teeth?

Wine contains compounds called tannins, which are plant-based substances also found in foods like tea or coffee. These tannins, especially abundant in grape skins, seeds, and stems, bind to proteins in our saliva and can settle into the crevices of our teeth, leading to discoloration. Moreover, chromogens in red wine, which give it its color, can also cling to the surface of our teeth and cause staining.

2. How does the acidic nature of wine affect our teeth?

The acidic nature of wine causes the tooth enamel — the hard outer layer of our teeth — to soften and become more porous. This makes it easier for tannins and other staining compounds to adhere to the teeth. Both red and white wines are acidic, making both capable of contributing to enamel weakening and staining.

3. What's the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic stains on teeth?

Extrinsic stains are surface stains on the enamel, typically caused by foods, drinks, or smoking, and they appear yellow or brown. Intrinsic stains occur within the tooth and can be gray, black, or bluish, resulting from trauma, medications, excessive fluoride, or certain diseases.

4. How can dental plaque and tartar influence the appearance of our teeth?

Dental plaque is a soft, sticky film containing bacteria that can lead to gum disease and cavities. If not removed, it hardens due to saliva's calcium and turns into tartar, which can further stain the teeth. While plaque might feel fuzzy and appear white or yellow, tartar feels hard and can be yellow or brown, primarily appearing near the gumline.

5. How can we prevent wine stains on our teeth?

Some strategies include hydrating with water between sips of wine, eating while drinking wine to produce saliva, brushing teeth before drinking, maintaining regular oral hygiene, using enamel-strengthening toothpaste, and considering professional dental cleanings.

6. Is white wine a better option for avoiding stains?

White wine typically has fewer tannins than red, which means a reduced chance of staining. However, white wine is still acidic, so it can soften enamel, making teeth more susceptible to stains from other sources.

7. How can professional dental check-ups help in discerning dental issues?

Regular dental check-ups involve the use of specialized tools and X-rays, allowing dentists to accurately diagnose and differentiate between various dental problems, be it stains, cavities, or other dental concerns.

Ready To Say Goodby to Red Teeth?

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