Medically reviewed by Edmund Khoo, DDS
Coffee has plenty of benefits for your overall health. Studies have connected it with a lower risk of developing cancer, lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and a lower risk of dying from heart disease. But coffee has a more notorious reputation when it comes to your teeth.
Coffee is acidic, which means it can break down enamel, or the tooth’s outer layer. It’s also full of tannins—the molecules that give it a dark color.
Coffee’s ability to damage or stain your teeth really comes down to two things: exposure time and frequency, Augusto Robles, DDS, MS, DMD, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s school of dentistry, told Health.
Exposure time has to do with how long it takes you to drink your coffee. Drinking it slowly, with pauses between sips, exposes your teeth over and over again to the acid and tannins. If you sip on multiple cups of coffee for hours every day, your teeth never get a break.
“Long exposure never lets your saliva fully neutralize the acidity in your mouth,” said Robles.
Saliva is one of your mouth’s main mechanisms for preventing cavities. But if you’re constantly sipping on coffee, your saliva is not able to fully wash it away. And if sugar and cream are in the mix, it can further the risk of damage to the enamel and, over time, tooth decay.
Although coffee can be bad for your teeth, there are things you can do to mitigate the risks. Keep reading to find out.
Related:How Drinking 2-3 Cups of Coffee a Day May Help You Live a Longer Life
Does Coffee Stain Your Teeth?
You might remember a simple lesson in elementary school where your teacher dropped a boiled egg in a cup of coffee and let it sit. An hour later, the egg would come out brown. Something similar can happen to your teeth.
Teeth are made up of many layers. The outer layers have tiny ridges and pores where residue can build up, according to Robles. Anything with tannins, like red wine, soy sauce, coffee, and tea can build up in those ridges and stain the tooth’s surface. Luckily, they don’t penetrate very deep.
In fact, if you brush your teeth after drinking coffee, you can remove most of the staining material, said Robles. If you don’t brush often enough, the staining will be worse.
Does Brushing Your Teeth After Drinking Coffee Prevent Stains?
Robles said the best time to brush your teeth after a cup of coffee is after—but not too soon after. Brushing before drinking coffee strips the teeth of its protective layer of saliva. When that saliva is there, it can help neutralize some of the acidity that reaches the surface of the tooth.
“If you brush and then go have coffee, you just peeled off your first [protective] layer,” said Robles.
If you do end up brushing your teeth before you drink coffee, you can wait 15 minutes before your first sip to allow that saliva barrier to rebuild itself.
Brushing after you enjoy your coffee is ideal to prevent long-term staining. But, in order to protect your teeth, you need to give your mouth time to neutralize.
“The surface of the teeth have been softened by the acid. If you go brush, you brush away a softened surface, and it’s easier for you to take away tooth structure than it was before you drank your coffee,” said Robles.
To neutralize your mouth, you can either swish some water around to wash away the coffee or wait around 20 minutes to let your saliva do it naturally.
How To Keep Coffee from Damaging Your Dental Health
Moderate coffee drinking without the addition of sugar likely isn’t directly hurting your oral health.
Scientific analyses have found no associations between coffee and gum disease. Coffee is also not likely to be the direct cause of cavities. In fact, some research has pointed to it being beneficial against one of the main types of bacteria that cause cavities. More research needs to be done to make any direct conclusions.
If you’re worried about the impact coffee is having on your teeth, a few tweaks can help make your coffee habit less damaging:
Drink it Faster
You don’t have to drink your whole cup of coffee within minutes, but try allotting 30 minutes for coffee instead of sipping it over several hours.
Drinking the same amount of caffeine in smaller volumes might also be helpful. You can enjoy a cup or two of espresso much faster than a large dark roast.
Replace Coffee With Tea
While black tea will have a similar staining effect to coffee, other types of tea, including green and white tea, contain lower levels of tannins, research shows.
Switching to green tea can also be a positive move for your overall oral health. According to a large 2018 study, older people in Japan who frequently drank green tea were more likely to have better oral health than those who mostly drank coffee.
Use a Straw
If you drink iced coffee, you might already be sipping with a straw. But you can also try using a straw for warm coffee.
A straw is a great way to reduce coffee’s contact with your teeth. Just be sure you position it so that it goes past your front teeth.
Cut the Sugar
Adding sugar to your coffee can increase the risk of decay and cavities. If you drink your coffee with sugar every day, it may be a good idea to cut back.
Additionally, you could replace sugar with an artificial sweetener like xylitol, which is commonly found in sugar-free gum.
Some older research has shown that adding milk to tea or coffee can reduce staining due to the protective effects of a protein called casein. However, another study found that teeth soaked in milk before being immersed in coffee still became stained.
Dr. Robles said milk does contain vitamins and minerals, like calcium and phosphorus, that are beneficial for keeping teeth healthy. But it also contains carbohydrates. Eventually, any carbohydrate residue on your teeth turns into damaging acids.
Therefore, milk in your coffee or not, it’s still a good idea to swish with water and brush your teeth afterwards.
Don’t Have Acidic Foods or Drinks Before Coffee
One of the worst things you can do is drink something acidic before drinking coffee, research suggests.
Acidic drinks like orange juice break down your tooth’s outer layer, making it especially susceptible to staining. Once you switch to coffee, those tannins will have no problem lodging themselves in the microscopic nooks and crannies on the tooth’s surface.
In fact, in one 2021 study, researchers soaked teeth in a variety of liquids, including orange juice, soda, milk, and green tea before immersing them in coffee. While all the teeth came out stained, the ones that were soaked in orange juice and soda, which are both very acidic, took on the most severe stains.
Rinse With Water
After you finish your coffee, swish some water around your mouth. Not only does this wash away some of the stain-inducing tannins, but it also helps neutralize the acid in your mouth. That way, you can brush your teeth without brushing away any broken-down enamel.
“When you’re done, swish with water so you facilitate the clearing of the acid and neutralize the pH in the mouth,” said Robles.
Related:Light Roast vs. Dark Roast Coffee: What Type Is Healthiest?
A Quick Review
Coffee has a reputation for staining your teeth. However, if you’re a coffee drinker, you certainly don’t have to give it up entirely to keep your teeth healthy and white. There are many things you can do to mitigate its effects.
One of the simplest steps you can take is to make sure you’re brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, ideally after you drink your coffee (but not too soon after). You can also try reducing the amount of time it takes for you to drink coffee each day.
If you’re still worried about stains, you can see your dental hygienist for cleanings more frequently. Additionally, you can try over-the-counter whitening strips or talk to your dentist about professional whitening sessions.
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Read the original article on Health.