Jessica Dean and Robin Rodriguez

Do you judge the attractiveness of others by the color of their teeth? Let’s say you’re walking around downtown and you encounter a hot girl or guy. How do you feel once they smile at you? How do you feel about your own teeth when you smile back at them? Some studies have shown that people feel that their self-esteem and confidence are affected by the brightness of their smile. However, a 2003 study at Belroit College in Wisconsin tested the reactions of men and women to photos of people with smiles of varying brightness. The study concluded that the bright white of a smile wasn’t directly associated with attractiveness. The researchers also concluded that whitening procedures and products are unnecessary.

But let’s say that you’re not convinced. I know I’m not. Who would disagree that when someone flashes a smile you wouldn’t notice the color of their teeth? How do teeth get to be discolored anyway? The color of your teeth is determined by lots of different things from genetics, to what you ate as a kid; to the way you treat your teeth now.

Even though your teeth will darken naturally with age, several environmental factors may contribute to the change. Exposure to high amounts of metals in the womb or during early childhood can result in permanently discolored teeth or a “mottled” appearance on the enamel. If you ate poorly as a child or had a diet that was missing major nutrients at the time your permanent teeth were forming, you could have permanently malformed teeth. Additionally, certain antibiotics can affect the color of your teeth if you used them during the time those teeth were forming. Over time, little cracks and fissures may develop in tooth enamel and make perfect containers for all those things that stain your teeth. Not brushing regularly or missing dentist appointments amplifies the overall effects of these “stainers.”

So let’s say that your teeth are already stained and you want to do something about it. If you have already cut back on the coffee and cigarettes, your next step would be to see a dentist. Dentists can eliminate two of the major problems with stained teeth. With just a check-up, a dentist can polish your teeth and make them as bright as they can be and they can determine that the stains you see will be affected by whitening products. Once you know that your smile can be brighter, you have a host of options from dentist chair treatments to over-the-counter smile brighteners.

The difference between the treatments you could get at the dentist and the ones you can purchase at the grocery store is the chemical composition and the strength of the chemicals. Dentist chair whiteners can be up to 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, a solution so strong they have to put a protective gel over your gums to protect them. Some treatments use a high wattage light to increase the action of the peroxide. However, the American Dental Association does not condone this practice. The most common side effects are temporary tooth sensitivity and a much lighter wallet (these treatments can set you back up to $750 per session).

Over the counter options vary from night trays and gel to nighttime strips with the gel pre-applied. All of these products contain hydrogen peroxide as well but in lower concentrations. Whitening toothpastes may change the color of your teeth as well, although not as dramatically as other treatments. Some whitening toothpastes contain peroxides, but most work by using abrasives to polish those stains away.

Robin and Jessica are senior nutrition students and Peer Health Educators. They can be reached at

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