Like many millennials looking to correct years of bad orthodontia, I’ve spent the past several weeks sporting clear aligners in my mouth for 20 hours a day. Soon, I’ll be finished with my treatment. While some of the aesthetic changes are rather obvious (and even predictable — my very crooked bottom teeth are one of the main reasons I opted for treatment in the first place), I’ve been pleasantly surprised to notice changes far more subtle in my overall face shape; changes that the naked eye probably wouldn’t even connect to my teeth at all.
It’s all been a firsthand case study in the fact that our teeth contribute to so much more than a nice smile: They’re a key part of our facial structure. “The teeth and bone are the primary support network for the lower third of the face,” explains Jon Marashi, DDS, a dentist responsible for some of Hollywood’s most recognizable smiles. As teeth shift over time, they can throw that support network off balance. “The face becomes more collapsed and looks aged,” he says.
As I mentioned, I’ve always assumed that a shoddy childhood experience with braces was to blame for my constantly shifting teeth. But the reality is that there are many, many factors that go into a changing smile — and none of us are really immune. “As we age, our teeth age in the same way as the rest of your body,” explains Marc Lowenberg, DDS, a celebrity dentist based in New York City. “Teeth become shorter — when you’re young, you can see upper teeth more, but as you age, they wear. All teeth begin to move and shift, and you begin getting spaces as they rotate, so they might appear crooked and out of alignment.”
That’s not even to mention elements like the gum line, lips, and enamel, which naturally wears and stains over time. While it sounds like a lot to consider, the good news is that there are ways to slow and treat all of these processes, so that we can all maintain a younger-looking smile for years to come.
Teeth aging problem #1: Even if you had braces, your teeth might shift back.
Fun fact: Your teeth have “memory.” “They tend to want to go back to their original position,” says Dr. Lowenberg. That’s why it can be so hard to maintain the results of professional orthodontia.
The solution: Thankfully, at-home treatments have made correcting this issue more efficient (and economical) than ever in recent years. It’s something Dr. Marashi believes in so fervently, he actually co-founded the aligner company Byte®. “At-home aligners are a fantastic option for people who have mild to moderate crooked teeth,” he says. “They have provided an avenue for more people to have affordable care and better access to it,” he adds, which is why he and his partners started the brand. Get further insight into how at-home aligners work here.
Teeth aging problem #2: Lifestyle factors can contribute to teeth grinding.
Everything from how you sleep to your daily life can cause wear and tear on your teeth, with stress being a primary factor in dental deterioration. “Life today seems to have become more and more stressful, and our bodies often take the brunt of that stress physically,” explains Dr. Lowenberg. “One of the most common areas that stress targets is the temporomandibular joint — the joint that opens and closes your mouth.” When under stress, people often clench or grind their teeth — but those kinds of bad habits tend to stick around long after the stress fades away. Ultimately, he says, they can contribute to wear and even chipping over time — not to mention unwelcome effects, like jaw pain.
The solution: This fix is more challenging than most, as you’ll have to fight the problem at the source. “Anytime there is pressure that creates contact between the top and bottom teeth, it increases the possibility of accelerated teeth wear,” warns Dr. Marashi. Translation: pay attention to the lifestyle factors that trigger your clenching.
For example, I notice that when I overdo it on caffeine, I tend to grit my teeth. (And that’s not just conjecture: “Caffeine is known to cause muscle activation and tension,” explains Dr. Marashi.) I’ve gotten better at cutting myself off when it comes to coffee, and reminding myself to release my jaw periodically. Or, you might tackle your jaw tension at night — either by trying a new sleep position (which may help release the pressure between your teeth) or considering a bite guard.
Teeth aging problem #3: Staining can make your smile appear older than it actually is.
If you drink coffee, tea, or wine, enjoy dried fruit, or are simply older than the age of 30, you might be more prone to staining. Yikes! Here’s what gives: “Your teeth darken with age, becoming yellow, brown, or grey, depending on the underlying color of the dentin layer,” explains Dr. Lowenberg. This darkening progresses with each decade. “The first layer of the tooth is enamel,” he notes. “Under the enamel is dentin, which is darker and can be either yellow, brown, or grey.” And if you enjoy any of the dark foods or drinks mentioned above, you might be accelerating some of that discoloration.
The solution: Take a two-pronged approach by starting at the source and then correcting the color. “If food or drink is the culprit of the staining and dull appearance of teeth, there are many things that can be done to prevent it,” says Dr. Lowenberg. “Chewing raw, crunchy fruits and vegetables, like apples, radishes, celery, kale, or carrots, can mechanically remove food and bacteria from your teeth and mouth, while scrubbing away surface stains to help prevent the dull appearance of teeth.” And of course, flossing and brushing regularly is a given.
Speaking of which: “Brush your teeth with a solution of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, the consistency of toothpaste, and that should at least remove all surface stains from your teeth and make them appear whiter,” adds Dr. Lowenberg. And, if you’re looking to tackle staining a bit more aggressively, then an in-office whitening treatment isn’t a bad idea — just note that you’ll need to return every six months or so. Discover other teeth whitening tricks here.
As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment.
Teeth aging problem #4: While we might be able to slow the process, aging will naturally wear down teeth over time.
For many of the reasons mentioned above, “over the lifecycle, as teeth become shorter from general usage and wear and tear, teeth grinding, and clenching, they become smaller,” explains Dr. Marashi. “As a result, they’ll provide less support for the lips and face,” he says. Over time, asymmetries in your teeth will cause asymmetries in your facial features, and smaller teeth will result in your face appearing more sunken.”
The solution: If your teeth have significantly changed, you’ve noticed a difference in your overall facial structure, and straightening hasn’t or won’t correct the issue, then it might be time to consider veneers.
“Smile makeovers with porcelain veneers can take five to 10 years off of your face without surgery, and can brighten the face for a subtle change,” says Dr. Lowenberg. “A dentist is able to use an array of techniques to rebuild teeth to where they were when you were 25, and . . . [facial structure] will be restored.” While veneers are certainly a major investment — porcelain veneers can start at $2,000 a tooth — they can also last anywhere between five and 20 years.
Regardless of your budget or lifestyle, there are many steps you can take towards revealing brighter, younger-looking teeth. And that’s something worth smiling about, no?
Of course, if any of the above issues are of concern to you, talk to your dentist.