Plaque is a sticky, colorless film of bacteria that constantly forms on our teeth and along the gum line. Plaque contains bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease. As plaque forms and is not removed by proper brushing and flossing, it can harden into tartar — sometimes called calculus — which is calcified (or hardened) plaque that attaches to the enamel on your teeth, as well as below the gum line.
Signs & Symptoms
Everyone develops plaque because bacteria are constantly growing in our mouths, which is not necessarily easy to see. Plaque that is not removed from around the gum line can cause inflammation and irritation to the gums around your teeth, leading to gingivitis (red, swollen, bleeding gums). If gingivitis is not treated, it can progress to periodontal disease and, possibly, tooth loss.
Unlike plaque, tartar is a mineral buildup that's fairly easy to see, if above the gum line. The most common sign of tartar is a yellow or brown deposit between the lower front teeth or at the gum line. The only way to remove tartar completely is to see your dentist or dental hygienist for a professional cleaning.
A lot of what we eat and drink remains in our mouths long after we've finished. Bacteria in our mouths thrive on many of these foods — namely sugars and carbohydrates — and produce acids that can attack the tooth surface. Additionally, if proper flossing and tooth brushing are not conducted efficiently each day this leads to more plaque and tartar development. Tartar gives plaque more surface area on which to grow and a much stickier surface to adhere to.
If not removed through daily brushing and flossing, plaque can build up, and the associated bacteria can infect not only your gums and teeth, but also the gum tissue and bone that support the teeth.
It's easy to prevent plaque buildup with proper care. Make sure to:
Brush thoroughly at least twice a day for 2 minutes to thoroughly remove plaque from all surfaces of your teeth.
Floss daily to remove plaque from between your teeth and under your gum line, where your toothbrush may not reach.
Limit sugary or starchy foods, especially sticky snacks.
Schedule at least two regular dental visits for professional cleanings and dental examinations each year.
Proper brushing, especially with a tartar control toothpaste, and flossing are necessary to reduce plaque and tartar buildup. Once tartar has formed, only your dentist or dental hygienist can remove it professionally.
The process for removing tartar is called scaling. During a scaling, the dentist or dental hygienist uses special instruments (ultrasonic and hand scalers, and curettes) to remove tartar and plaque from your teeth, above and below the gum line.
Without proper treatment, tartar and plaque can lead to a variety of issues like cavities, gum disease and tooth loss. It’s important to brush twice a day and floss once a day, and schedule regular checkups and professional cleanings with your dentist.