Tetracycline staining on teeth

Grey teeth caused by tetracycline can be frustrating and feel embarrassing. We unpack what underlies the discoloration, and what you can do to whiten your teeth.

Addressing tetracycline stained teeth is a bit more involved than other types of staining, but the good news is, it is possible! Let's dive into why tetracycline does to teeth and the proven methods to help make your smiles whiter and brighter.

Tetracycline staining explained

Tetracycline is an antibiotic (taken orally) used to treat a variety of infections like acne and syphilis. This antibiotic has been around since the 1970s and works really well against infections. However, when it comes to dental health there can be some downsides. 

If a pregnant woman uses tetracycline during her third trimester, or a child takes it when their teeth are forming (age 3-4 months, or age 7-8 years), the tetracycline can make its way into the teeth and cause them to discolor.

That's because the tetracycline absorbs easily into tissues that are growing and calcifying like, you guessed it, your teeth. Tetracycline doesn't affect adult teeth after they have erupted through your gums because once your teeth are formed and out and about, they stop calcifying.

Teeth that are "stained" from tetracycline are actually discolored from the inside and will not react the same way to whitening like non-affected teeth. If you have tetracycline-stained teeth, don't despair! There is a way to whiten them.

Tetracycline teeth whitening - before you get started

There is a misperception that the only way to change the color of tetracycline teeth is to get veneers or crowns placed on top of the teeth. "There are now effective ways to whiten teeth that are affected by tetracycline staining that don't require the intensive, and costly approaches of placing veneers or crowns on teeth," shares Wally hygienist, Sarah Clark, RDH. "That said, everybody's teeth respond differently to whitening so it's best to get custom-made products and then monitor them with a professional to get the results you're going for." 

All natural teeth will lighten with professional whitening, it's just hard to know how much your teeth will whiten and how uniform that whitening will be before you start the process. When it comes to tetracycline-stained teeth, there are two additional things to consider with whitening.

The first thing about whitening tetracycline stained teeth is that it takes longer than whitening non-stained teeth. Teeth that aren't affected by tetracycline can whiten in as few as 3 days or as long as 6 weeks. While tetracycline-stained teeth take 8 - 24 weeks to see results.

The second key thing to remember about tetracycline-stained teeth is that they will not look as "white" as non-stained teeth. Tetracycline stains come in a few different hues: 

  • Grey
  • Brown
  • Yellow

Grey is the hardest variety to whiten, while brown or yellow will respond better to whitening agents.

How to whiten tetracycline-stained teeth

Once you're ready to get started, you'll want to visit your dentist for a full examination to make sure your teeth are healthy and ready for whitening, and to get a cleaning. When your clinicians give you the green-light it's time for professional and customized whitening. 

Another misconception is that tetracycline-stained teeth can only be whitening using in-office whitening or even using … lasers. 


dr. evil doing air quotes for a "laser"
☝️ Now there's a doctor you don't want working on your teeth


"It might surprise you to know that at-home whitening with custom-fit trays and custom-formulated gels is actually the most effective way to whiten your teeth. Not just for "normal" teeth but even for most tetracycline-stained teeth," says Sarah Clark, RDH.

Since tetracycline-stained teeth require more exposure to the whitening agent, your clinician will recommend a whitening gel with 10% carbamide peroxide. Carbamide peroxide stays "active" for longer which means you can get great results. "For tetracycline-stained teeth, we recommend wearing your trays with 10% carbamide peroxide gel overnight for the most efficient and effective results."

Oh, and a bonus nerd fact about using carbamide peroxide? It is a neutral ingredient which raises the pH of your mouth (aka lowers the acidity) which will help prevent tooth decay and sensitivity while whitening.

Grey spots on teeth, be gone! Here's how to make the whitening work 

Getting your custom trays and gel is step one. The trick is to be consistent with wearing them, and wearing them for hours. Why stick with it? Because it is the fastest, most effective (and comfortable) way to get the whitening results you want. While 50% of the peroxide wears down during the first 1-2 hours, the rest of the peroxide lasts another 2-6 hours.

Sticking with anything for 2 to 6+ months can be challenging, let alone something you have to put on your teeth and leave there for hours. 

If you're struggling to find a way to create and stick with your whitening routine, experts recommend that you "stack your habits." Look for existing patterns in your day and think about how you can piggyback something new onto something you do every day. We recommend making it part of your existing bedtime routine so it becomes second nature to pop in those trays at the end of the night.

Eventually you'll get used to wearing your trays each night, and soon it will feel weird to not wear them.

Ready for next steps?

If you haven't yet, join our waitlist to become a Wally member. Your clinical team will chat with you about your teeth whitening goals and help you come up with a strategy that includes (a) when to start, (b) how to custom-formulate your gel, and (c) the right length of time to wear your whitening trays.

Check out our complete guide on teeth discoloration, "White spots on teeth and other discoloration" for everything you need to keep your teeth looking evenly bright.

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