Like many people I often wish my teeth looked whiter, but it seems there is more to worry about than I realised. Though we all know guzzling cola and coffee won't lead to a great look, there are other less well-known risks of discolouration and damage. Dental experts warn that more effort and education needs to be put into protecting tooth enamel.
Dentist Usha Narshai of Grey Lynn Dental explains that once the protective outer coating on teeth is degraded the underlying yellowish layer shows through. Whitening treatments will have limited effect at this point and if the enamel has thinned unevenly, whitening can lead to patchy lightening results. Veneers are the ultimate solution to restore pearly whites to people with badly damaged enamel, but prevention is cheaper than that particular cure, so it pays to look after what you've got.
Even if you're not currently worried about the cosmetic appearance of your teeth, think about what you consume and how you consume it lest you are causing unwitting damage by your food selections and habits of excessive grazing and sipping. High acid levels in the mouth will over time soften and wear away tooth enamel. When acid wear turns into acid erosion problems may include teeth staining, cracking, sensitivity and transparency at the biting edge. Sugary drinks and foods create an environment in which bacteria thrives, so producing high acid levels.
Caffeinated drinks consumed in quantity can also lead to acid wear. Other substances are of themselves particularly acidic, such as vinegar-based salad dressings and alcohol, especially wine. Accompany your glass of wine with another of water to help dilute the acidic effect. Drinking water is also a good practice while eating and snackers should aim to consume foods which are low in acidity, or follow acidic foods with those that help counteract the effect, such as cheese or nuts. Accompany fruit with plain yoghurt.
But it is not just an unhealthy diet to blame for the increased acid assault on our mouths. Keen exercisers can be at particular risk from saliva drying up and causing an unhealthy pH imbalance in the mouth. That's one of a number of good reasons to maintain fluid levels while exercising, but beware of substituting water with energy drinks. Gum chewing is helpful in activating saliva production - which helps minimise decay by neutralising acids and can also help dislodge food debris; however, watch the sugar content of gum products.
Sufferers of severe acid reflux and heartburn are also at risk as reflux can bring erosive stomach acids up to the mouth.
Dieters need to take care, especially when upping their intake of juices and fruit teas or trying the likes of lemon detox drinks. It is best to avoid prolonged sipping, drink these quickly rather than swishing them around or holding them in the mouth. Using a straw to drink juices (and soft drinks) reduces the contact between liquid and teeth.
The normal pH level of 7 in the mouth is upset by carbohydrates, sugar and acid, says Alison Field, the dental team leader for dental product maker GlaxoSmithKline. Toothpastes have a pH level of 7.1 to neutralise acid, she explains, and consumers have increasingly been looking for added benefits from their toothpastes. Around 40 per cent of people still buy cheap basic pastes at supermarkets, but the majority now look for whitening or other benefits in slightly more expensive formulas. The upper end of the market is growing for specialist products, nearing the $10 mark.
Whatever product you choose, good dental hygiene, including regular brushing and flossing, will help keep many problems at bay, but scrubbing away the moment you have consumed something acidic isn't the answer. It is better to wait an hour because immediately afterwards your enamel can be especially soft and prone to damage from brushing. Dental floss and toothpicks can be used during the day, between thorough but gentle morning and evening brushing. Over-vigorous brushing tends to cause damage around the gumline, and other forms of wear and tear and friction come from grinding and clenching of the teeth which damages the biting end.
Field's company, which makes Sensodyne, a leading sensitive tooth formula, has just launched Pronamel aimed at protecting teeth against the effects of enamel wear. She describes this as being for pro-active people who want to guard against yellowing, but who do not already have sensitivity. (Pronamel is a low abrasive formula with extra fluoride and without the harsh but common foaming agent sodium lauryl sulphate. It is available in a regular and a whitening formula with a recommended price of $8.50).
"We know it is not always possible to avoid acidic food and drink. We're a nation that loves our daily tea and coffee, but it is important to take care of your enamel because once it's gone, it's gone," warns Field.